I have a friend who loves to debate with me about the merits of gay marriage. Last year, he would come to my room on a weekly basis and tell me about a new argument he had heard or read in opposition to gay marriage. Each week I would listen to him tell me about how gay marriage would corrupt the young, erect societal anarchy and spark the obliteration of Earth. Usually after a half hour of back-and-forth discussion he would leave the room, concluding: “You know, you’re right. Hell, gay marriage might even be a good thing for this country. But if it came down to a vote I would still abstain.” A year of these discussions later, and I am left with a friend who would choose to abstain from a vote securing one of my basic liberties.
And that’s hurtful. That type of apathetic ignorance stings more than even the most bigoted of attacks, especially when it is displayed by a fellow Duke student. It probably shouldn’t—in truth I’d take my unsympathetic friend over a Westboro Baptist Church member any day—yet there is something incredibly disconcerting about someone actively choosing to remain silent on an issue of social justice due to indifference or fear of taking a stance. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a powerful speech about a decade before his death in which he reflected: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” With all of the social activists at Duke, it is easy to ignore the deafening silence of so many students. Duke Student Government and activist groups on campus do a great job of raising awareness for social issues, but until other students grasp the necessity of their participation, social progressivism will never reach its potential.
Someone might abstain from debates on social justice for one of two reasons. Either he fears choosing a side or he thinks the issue is not worth his consideration. When words like “fag,” “retard” and “whore” are employed, the individuals who seemingly lack a thesaurus or even a basic proficiency of the English language are not criticized due to the social stigma that comes with being “politically correct.” On more general disputes, conservatives thrive off of devaluing the importance of progressive stances. Take the renaming of Aycock Dorm, for instance, when the most common critique of the movement was ironically that it did not do enough to counter racial tensions. “If you actually want to combat racism on campus, why not put your time into something other than a building name?” Such logic is frustrating because the opposition proposes that doing nothing is somehow better than taking a step (albeit a small one) in the right direction.
Whether our silence spawns from fear or ignorance, we should not fool ourselves into believing that inaction somehow absolves us of the responsibility of what we complacently allow. An interesting aspect of the Duke Community Standard that all freshmen sign each year is that there is an individual obligation to prevent potentially unsafe situations for other students. By not doing so, especially in physically and emotionally unsafe conditions, we set a precedent of silence. And this precedent is a dangerous one. Because silence is more than a personal indifference—it has real consequences for everyone.
Silence is the classism in choosing your friends based on who can afford to eat out every day. Silence is the subtle racism that comes from ignoring the debate about the namesake of a building that really just isn’t worth your time. Silence is the fellow student standing isolated and feeling insignificant at the latest social function. Silence is the homophobia of refusing to change your profile picture from your smiling face to a symbol of equality because of fear that a future employer might not hire you as a result. Silence is the tacit awareness that sexual assault is just a given on a college campus. Silence is the unexpected suicide that results from "friendly" indifference.
Often silence is not a way out but a cowardly and selfish retreat. It is a response that screams loudly and clearly that your comfort is more important than a friend’s discomfort. When neither indisputable reason nor emotional appeal can make someone take a stance on a social issue, then the root of his comfort must by default come from intuitive prejudice.
Of course, holding everyone to a standard of activism is an unrealistic and an unattainable goal and students should retain the agency to choose their battles. But it is essential that we are all aware that when we are silent we make a conscious decision with tangible impacts. Inaction is just a silent action, and it can be just as painful as the loudest discrimination.
Brendan McCartney is a Trinity Junior. This is his first column in a semester-long series.