Silence, according to the Oxford Language dictionary, is defined as both a noun: complete absence of sound, and as a verb: to cause to become silent: prohibit or prevent from speaking.  

People often say “silence is golden” or in the other context, someone was “silenced and jailed for speaking out.”  

Silence can be both beautiful and hurtful.  

I recently saw a post online of a young man holding up a sign that read “Silence is Violence!” Ironically, he wore a T-shirt that read, “if you’re white (he was white) a racist, a cop... and so on ... then shut up!”  Apparently, he wants to silence those who have opposing views, but criticize anyone who might not be comfortable talking about personal feelings and beliefs. He is obviously confused. 

You’ve probably heard a quote about staying quiet from the likes of men such as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain but the following quote is attributed to a student newspaper, in 1931, from Northwestern University.  The author is defending the criminal gangster, Al Capone, who was responsible – both directly and indirectly – for the deaths of at least 400 people, many of them rival gang members. Capone also orchestrated smuggling operations, ran illegal gambling houses and prostitution rings. The letter to the editor in defense of Capone reads: “But when you try to dictate what to do to others, remember this – It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt!” Much like the young man wearing the T-shirt, this author used his student newspaper to speak out against the arrest of Al Capone while simultaneously recommending others keep their mouths shut.  He too was obviously confused. 

The phrases “speak out” and “speak up” are commonplace in American culture, but the same society often tells us to “be quiet” if someone is offended by the words we’ve spoken. One’s opinion is only valued when it fits the narrative of the person who is asking. This duality of speaking but not being heard, or not speaking and being perceived by the public as uncaring or ignorant of current events is perplexing.

What severe confusion and even mental health issues this connundrum causes!  

Here is my observation: I think most people don’t know what to say, and that includes everyone, red, yellow, black, white, etc. Silence does not equal violence, nor does it mean we are deaf to a movement. Quite often, silence means, “I’m listening, I’m learning, I’m trying to understand.”

We must first listen to be able to fully understand. I am a firm believer in researching independent sources, not relying on television or social media to gather my facts. Give me the data, the numbers, the evidence that supports a call to action – whether it be neutering animals or helping civil service workers achieve an increase in pay.  

I want to make an educated decision or else my emotions get in the way and I tend to listen to my heart rather than the facts. The heart is a fickle fool and will lead in a dangerous direction if we ignore logic.  This is where true violence usually occurs.

Here’s my plea:

• Stop demanding an outspoken response.

• Stop thinking everyone should feel the same way you do.  

• Stop trying to silence those who want to peacefully speak out.  

• Stop using “Silence is Violence.” It’s confusing and detrimental to mental health.  

• Stop acting like you have all the answers and no one else has any. 

• Stop letting the words of your political parties divide you.

As Bernard Baruch says, “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” Maybe we should try it.

• Stephanie Bell is Executive Director of Pierce County Family Connection.