It starts with one brave accuser, then another comes forward; now there are six, ten. We see a pattern of abusive behavior perpetrated by a powerful man who felt unassailable. He denies it. His wife stands by him. More people come forward. His powerful allies make statements, distancing themselves from him. High-profile projects drop him like a bad habit. And then (finally), he falls from grace.
We see it so clearly.
In this particular historical moment, when these powerful men are (finally) seeing some consequences for their abusive behavior, we get to see a part of the pattern that is new to us–the testimony of the bystanders. “It was an open secret,” they say. “Everyone in town was uncomfortable about it.” “We all knew not to be caught alone with him.” The silence of others has come to be as predictable a part of these stories as the denials and the disgrace. And yet somehow, this neglect, this tacit endorsement, reflects only on the abuser it once protected.
The questions that are always asked of the abuse victims
Why didn’t you say something sooner?
Why didn’t you do anything to stop it?
Why should we believe you?
are never asked of the bystanders.
This year the conversation changed a little, as woman after woman on social media raised our virtual hands and said #metoo. Think you don’t know any victims?, the campaign asked. You do.
It’s justifiable to fear retaliation from powerful men who abuse others if we speak out and name the abuse. But there is a system that enables those men. And it’s the silence of the bystander that makes us part of that system, that damns us.
And still there’s this desire to wash our hands of the whole thing and blame it on one bad man, or a dozen. This is where it becomes muddy, where we can’t see the pattern so clearly. Because if you know it’s happening and you don’t condemn it, you encourage it. It’s not just one bad man or a horrific, isolated incident–it’s every “joke,” commercial, and policy decision that pits the powerful against the powerless. And whatever our role in the dynamic, we can speak up, or stand by in silence.
I’ve wrestled a lot this year with a contradiction I’m not sure can be resolved: the desire to resist, to make my voice heard, to speak truth to power…and the fear. It’s a kind of fear that all my study of history cannot shake from me, and only bolsters. I’m afraid that in trying to make a better world for my children, I could deprive them of me. I could be separated from them, or endanger them, by speaking out.
I’m not a public figure or a political organizer, I don’t confront the president on Twitter, and I’m not a conspiracy theorist. But I can’t help worrying that just by carrying my grain of sand–my memberships, contributions, participation in protests, letters, phone calls–I make myself a target. I put up my rainbow flag wondering about rocks through the window and read about the regular woman run over and killed while protesting Nazis. I see a president who nurses personal vendettas against people he feels have insulted him. I see refugees from fascist countries where even today dictators victimize the families of those who speak out. I see how being silent can start to seem like the safer bet.
History oversimplifies the stories of heroes but it’s clear they involve sacrifice. They give up cozy times at home with their kids and their kids are sad but in the end proud because their moms and dads saved a lot of other kids and moms and dads. I don’t think that’s me. I’m not going to be one of History’s Great Heroes. So why bother sticking my neck out at all?
We had a faculty meeting recently to go over changes to the law regarding harassment, intimidation, and bullying in schools. We learned that in the new terminology, students who witness bullying are encouraged to be proactive “upstanders,” as opposed to silent “bystanders.” Our principal reminded us that as teachers, we have not only a moral, but also a legal obligation to intervene when we suspect that a student is being victimized. For a teacher, the risk-reward calculation is simple (or it should be). For a student, it’s messy: why be an upstander when speaking up could make you the bully’s next target?
It’s easier, certainly, to be silent. Speaking up is risky, and exhausting. We want to convince ourselves that those bad things are none of our affair, that it is safer, and wiser, to look away. That we are not connected to those bad men or to those victims. This is a lie.
I know this is a lie but still the thought of my children makes me want to board up the windows and build a fire and snuggle them close and to hell with the rest of the world. I don’t forgive all those bystanders who stayed silent when a famous actor or member of Congress abused someone in their community, but boy do I understand. When I’m wrapped up in a frenzy of paranoid self-protection, I try to remember that those victims were someone’s children, and could just as easily be mine, someday. I wonder: can I be brave and risk nothing?
The writer and activist Audre Lorde said, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you….We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”
This is my New Year’s Resolution: to live in the contradiction and not let the contradiction be paralyzing. To stay awake, to speak, to be brave. To remember that if I want these qualities for my children, I have to have them myself. To forgive myself for feeling afraid. To feel afraid, and go ahead anyway, and raise my voice.