Ed. Note: This column is the summation of more than 40 opinion columns written for The Daily Northwestern over the past two years, effectively closing the book on my career as an undergraduate student journalist. I’ll reflect more on the experience in a new upcoming post. Daily Derrick would not exist without the support of readers and followers from pieces like these published in The Daily Northwestern. I’ll save the rest for the upcoming retrospective post. The piece has been slightly adapted for Daily Derrick readers in and out of Northwestern and Evanston, Ill.
President Lincoln once said it’s better to remain silent and thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. Dare I say it, I disagree with ‘ole Honest Abe. Silence isn’t as golden as it seems.
I’d rather not lie and say silence doesn’t have its time and place. But perhaps that’s different from the silence we’ve come to know and learn. At least that’s true for me.
During my parochial middle school education, Sister Gina frequently paused algebra lessons when students got a bit too chatty. But that’s really about fostering focus and civility in an educational setting, not the realities of everyday life.
With the few internships Northwestern has afforded me, I’ve become familiar with confidentiality agreements. Signing the dotted line plus having a shred of common sense keeps company employees quiet about revealing internal business to external parties. But that’s really about conducting good business, not the realities of everyday life.
And when hitting up Century Theatres for an entertaining flick, no one wants to be the person with a phone blaring Carly Rae Jepsen’s trademark trainwreck during the film’s climax. Taking the call is even worse. If the phone was off to begin with, chances are you wouldn’t feel nearly as unpleasant.
Though it’s a different story when your phone’s off, yet the poor soul behind you takes a phone call. Would you sit there and deal with it, or turn around and express desire for a quiet viewing experience?
It depends on the person, really. We each choose our own battles. Personally, I crack after a minute or so of remaining silent. But when I spoke up and my neighbor terminated the call, I was always happier than when I sat in tolerance or resentment.
Sometimes you need to choose not when to speak up, rather how. Perhaps my supervisor’s use of a slur would be best addressed over coffee in a private space, not at the team meeting. Discernment takes time to navigate, making a pause in action inevitable. And the most successful people master navigating those moments with social and emotional intelligence top of mind. That requires expression, not silence.
Lincoln offered wisdom to those who proceed carelessly instead of exercising discernment. Still, it’s better to stand corrected and learn rather than keep quiet and remain ignorant. Believe me, it’s understandable to be uninformed and incorrect. But what’s humanizing is when it’s clear someone has learned and moves forward with that new knowledge.
Over my past four years at Northwestern, and especially over the last two quarters of racial harassment incidents and resulting diversity dialogues, the best moments I’ve witnessed featured shared dialogues. No doubt it’s tough having a difficult conversation when your discussion partner disagrees. But to discuss is to take the first step toward a potential resolution. How we navigate our emotions and express ourselves is what follows.
No one likes being or feeling attacked for their perspective. That has become abundantly clear during the often tense diversity dialogues. I’ve witnessed many a conversation where others politely intervene to encourage civility. But when both sides actively listen, ask open questions and respond after some degree of reflection, more often than not, I’ve seen new bonds and friendships form.
How’s that for remaining silent?
Those who continue to plead the Fifth shouldn’t be surprised when the reward is a whole lot of nothing. Progress is no friend to silent bystanders, but embraces those who dare to speak and act. That’s when a change in your community and, more importantly, a change in yourself moves closer to reality.
I’m sure Honest Abe was thought a fool for signing the Emancipation Proclamation, but that didn’t stop him from enforcing it through speech and deed, despite the naysayers.
Even if I say or do something foolish, I have enough integrity to lend an ear to critics. And from these pages as a columnist, I’ve had my fair share. Some remarks I’ve taken with a grain of salt. Others I’ve noted as lessons learned. Regardless of where I am in life, I’ve had to hear my critics speak to know and understand their dissent, even if it’s misguided.
That’s one of the many moments when silence does a disservice.
There are some who always attempt to understand others, yet seek to be understood to no avail. We’ve all been there, and it’s exhausting.
There are some who acknowledge their power and privilege, yet hold inside all their unresolved questions of how to navigate the guilt they may have because of it.
There are some who for whatever reason — be it cynicism, isolation or social approval — would tolerate unpleasant environments rather than express any signal of discontent.
When voices fueling injustices around us continue modulating as they do, bystanding creates a silence that not only deafens, but destroys. Sitting idly by and remaining quiet while the bullies of the world continue having their way isn’t an endorsement of positive change, rather more of the same.
If there’s any notion I’ve wished to inspire after more than 40 columns, it’s best expressed through the words of an anti-prejudice anthem by the ‘90s R&B group En Vogue: “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.”
That very freedom continues seeing me through these last days of mine in the Northwestern bubble, and toward an open world flowing with opportunities. Only through encountering those wonderful journeys with an open mind and heart will anyone truly identify them.
So until next time, I leave you with a personal twist from that perennially awkward wedding moment. Speak now: don’t forever hold your peace.
Originally published in the 5/24 edition of The Daily Northwestern.