Last week, Harsha Nahata wrote a column in The Michigan Daily addressing the silence of our generation — “Generation Q” for “quiet,” according to a New York Times columnist. We’re not necessarily ignorant or apathetic to all the shit that goes on in essentially every corner of the world, but eventually we reach a point where “save the world” turns into “shit happens.” So, we become wrapped up in our own lives. We have our games and our shows and our Netflix and our beds at night that keep us warmer than the food particles nestled between the keys of our Macbooks. We’re watching and we’re warm, and life develops a lulling pattern over which there’s a hum like a fan by your bedside — white noise that you don’t even bother to speak over.
OK, let’s all agree that apathy is overall shitty. But I don’t think silence necessarily equates to indifference. Silence isn’t always a failure to respond, but rather can be a tactical action. Sometimes it kills us to be silent, but we do so because it seems to be the best decision in a given context. So, when is it OK to be quiet?
Well, I’m not entirely sure, as there are an impossible number of combinations of events in which a person could either speak or not speak. More often than not, there are other methods of action, too, beyond speaking or not speaking. Ugh, life’s so complicated.
Let me begin with a conversation I had last week. I was talking to my current mentor in the School of Education. She’s pretty brilliant from what I’ve gathered after a few weeks of sitting in her classroom and talking with her in the hallways amid the riptide of high-school students. Our conversations are usually pretty dense in comparison to the discussions of chemistry exams and dance dates. The teacher said to the other teaching interns and me something along the lines of, “Always teach your classroom like there is at least one gay student in it. Because there probably is.” What she meant was to be aware of our audience and how heteronormativity is totally a thing (although Microsoft Word may argue otherwise — damn those red squiggly lines) and we need to be mindful of LGBTQ students. As a teacher, don’t assume heteronormativity. Actively work to create an atmosphere of respect for all students in the classroom.
That said, what if the students assume heterosexuality in their teacher? What if there isn’t an atmosphere of respect for the teacher? And what if this isn’t just in the classroom, but in the entire school or the community of the city or town itself? What if a male teacher, when asked what he did over winter break, were to respond with, “I went skiing with my boyfriend”?
As our mentor and teacher said, that has the potential to “create a stir” in the classroom. And maybe that’s all that would happen, and the school year would continue, and that teacher would go scuba diving with his boyfriend during spring break or something, and tell his students about that, too. But maybe a student in the class would go home and tell his parents about his teacher’s boyfriend while seating himself at the dinner table, and maybe that would create a stir somewhere between the mashed potatoes and the chicken casserole — a stir that would eventually make its way back to the administration, an administration that doesn’t like the idea of male teachers skiing with other males … (I realize this sounds petty and absurd — that’s the point.) And while I’m speaking in hypotheticals, this scenario is something that is still very, very real in the 21st century. Just Google teacher fired for being gay. The results are disgusting, all 15 million of them.
So, yeah, I can see why sometimes it’s easier to just remain quiet, or to simply say, “I went skiing,” and leave it at that. Just like it’s easier to simply ignore — or perhaps smile back — at the men jeering at you as you march home in stilettos at 2:30 in the morning. Not every situation offers an equal opportunity to speak your mind. In some situations, it’s not only easier, but also safer to say nothing. And we must respect the right to say nothing. Because that may simply be the smartest thing to do — it sucks, but it’s true.
So, then, how do things ever change? How will we ever progress if we’re cowering atop our stilettos or censoring pages of our travel journals? If we’re scared and silent?
Change requires people to speak out — and not solely or not necessarily the people who are experiencing this oppression — but the people who have the power and privilege to speak out against it, and suffer no to minimal repercussions. This ties back into Nahata’s column — “It’s not enough for one person to raise their voice — we all need to,” she writes. But the “we all” in that sentence isn’t always possible. By all means, I believe that those who are oppressed or marginalized in whatever way certainly have the right to voice their opinions just as loudly. However, realistically, it’s not an obligation or even always a possibility.
Katie Steen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.