Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Does silence really equal consent?

There’s a Latin Proverb that’s survived into modern times: “Qui tacet consentiret”. It means, basically, “silence means consent”. The phrase is loved by activists on the both the Left and the Right, and for much the same reason: It serves as a self-perpetuating form of social control, especially control of public discourse. Trouble is, the phrase is ridiculously silly.

The whole Latin phrase is: “Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit”, which can be translated as “He who is silent, when he ought to have spoken and was able to, is taken to agree”. The middle part is key here: The person has to have had an obligation to speak—ideology warriors insist everyone has that obligation—but they must also be able to speak. There are plenty of reasons why people may not feel free to speak, but it’s the presumption of an obligation to speak up that’s at the very root of the absurd promotion of the phrase. In reality, people have no obligation to speak up.

The concepts of personal freedom, liberty, and autonomy require that people must have the right to choose for themselves whether or not they’ll speak up about something they don’t agree with or don’t like. They cannot be compelled to speak up if they choose not to, no matter how much the ideology warriors may demand they do.

In his essay Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.” He was talking about the obligation of people to resist unjust laws and government rule. Immediately before this quote, he wrote, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” How can that not also be true for the socially presumed obligation to speak up? If we don’t think it’s right to speak, for whatever reason, we cannot be obligated to do so.

Among the reasons that people might remain silent is that they simply don’t care about the topic. Whether they ought to care is subjective: Ideology warriors will always assume that someone “ought” to care, but that doesn’t make it so. Among other things, no one has an infinite capacity to care equally passionately about everything, so one must choose one’s battles. This is especially necessary in light of our busy lives and many competing demands for our attention, including work, family, and our own needs. It’s pretty arrogant to demand that everyone must also engage fully on a topic just because we care very much about it.

There’s another, possibly more common, reason that people don’t speak up in this Social Media Age: Retribution. Examine any comments section on the Facebook Pages for media companies, or look at pretty much anyone stating an opinion on Twitter, and it’s almost inevitable that they’ll have someone or many people swoop in to condemn them for their opinion. It doesn’t matter whether those attacking them are real people or trolls/bots (as, indeed, many of the worst offenders often are), it’s still unpleasant, to say the least.

We can all watch such attacks happening in real time and conclude that stating our opinion just isn’t worth the nearly inevitable harsh (over)reaction, or what I call drive-by bullying—attacking and then ignoring all replies. From there, however, it can get much worse. Too often someone will engage in “doxxing”, the sick tactic of ferreting out and revealing personal details and information about people as a weapon of retaliation for not supporting whatever the attackers’ positions are, or for daring to express an opposing view. So, offering an opinion might not just end up being “unpleasant”, it may even be dangerous.

If no one can care equally about all topics, and they can’t, and if expressing an opinion can lead to unpleasant or even dangerous consequences, and it can, then the surprise isn’t that more people don’t express their opinions, it’s that any rational person would.

Naturally, reality doesn’t stop ideology warriors.

This “silence means consent” nonsense is loved by the Left and Right alike, who —even in real life outside of social media—try to shame anyone on “their” side who doesn’t speak out. That tactic seldom actually works, because, why would it? We can all see the consequences of speaking out, so doesn’t that mean that by default silence is the better option?

I think there’s a middle option: Judicious and considered choosing of when, where, and how to speak out.

Social media is usually the worst possible place to express an opinion. I almost never do, except in response to something a friend has posted; I never comment on a public Facebook Pages (except, of course, for the AmeriNZ Facebook Page or other moderated pages), the comments section of a public site, including YouTube, newspaper websites, etc. (because they’re seldom moderated), and I rarely post anything on Twitter anymore. I also freely use the “block” function on Facebook and Twitter so I never again have to see the trolling or simply bad behaviour of some ideology warrior, Left or Right. Those, however, are defensive moves only. How else can one speak out relatively safely?

Obviously a blog is one possibility. Most personal blogs will have a small, possibly tiny, readership, so we’re unlikely to come to the attention of trolls and boorish ideology warriors. It’s even possible to blog with a high degree of anonymity if we want; in fact, that was the reason that I was so guarded and anonymous when I began blogging and then podcasting: I wanted to protect myself from trolls in particular, and it worked (though the small readership of this blog probably helped a lot, too…).

Calm personal discussions can be an option, too, because people often (though certainly not always) behave better towards someone right in front of them. In real, face-to-face life I’ve never had anyone call be a “libtard”, for example. However, even this must be done with some caution: People are capable of being dicks in real life, too.

What all of this means is that no one has an obligation to speak up, and there are many—and good—reasons why someone may choose to remain silent in the Social Media Age. We can infer absolutely nothing about someone or their positions merely because they choose not to speak up, except that they’re not speaking up, as is their inalienable right. It doesn’t matter what we think about their silence: Our opinions and feelings about their silence are irrelevant.

The phrase “silence means consent”, though loved by activists and ideology warriors on the both the Left and the Right, is nothing more than a self-perpetuating form of social control, especially control of public discourse. And that’s why the phrase is ridiculously silly.

Of course silence doesn’t really equal consent. But if those ideology warriors were any good at stating their positions, people might agree with them and say so—but only if those ideology warriors didn’t attack people they disagree with so freely and fiercely. Silence does NOT mean or even imply consent. Ever. It’s well past time we stopped pretending it does.


Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

I think the power dynamic absolutely does play a role. For example, it's highly improbable that ordinary Germans could have stopped the Nazis after they had power. Could they have stopped them early on? Maybe, but a lot of what they promoted—including anti-Semitism—was generally popular.

For us in this age, it comes down to safety. That means both online safety, as I talked about in this post, and also our physical safety when we confront an aggressive and/or belligerent person in real life. We always have to weigh the risks.

A couple years ago I wrote about intervening when a I saw a woman being harassed by a drunk, and at the bottom of that post is a simple strategy for how to safely and peacefully help someone who's being harassed or otherwise targeted in public. It's basically a version of what you described as a way of dealing with schoolyard bullies, and I think a good strategy to keep in mind.

Here's that post: https://amerinz.blogspot.com/2017/07/safety-dance.html

rogerogreen said...

I first heard this, I believe, re the "good German people" who allowed Nazism to take hold. I suppose it may depend on the degree, and the immediacy of the problem.

For instance, Bullying in school. If a group of kids confront the bully and comfort the victim, that cann, relatively safely address the issue.

Speaking out against racism, sexism, homophobia - it may depend on the situation - but saying nothing does imply agreement. Surely, the power dynamic is at play. Tricky stuff.