On Speaking Up…

Years ago, my professor pulled me aside after class and said… “It takes spine to go against popular opinion. However, it can be quite risky. I recommend that you learn to keep your opinions to yourself if you want to keep your place here. I don’t say this because I disagree with you. In fact, I agree with you, and know first hand what trouble an unpopular opinion can cause.”

“Do you mean to censor me?” I asked.

“I am not censoring you. I am telling you that this society will. If not by convincing you, then by coercing you.”

The discussion that had just taken place in class was about a human rights crisis that I could not be silent about. The curriculum presented the situation from the perspective of the victor which, according to my own family history, is a very shallow perspective. The truth was a lot deeper, a lot more cruel, a lot more painful.

I told myself that I would not let my professor’s words prevent me from standing on the right side of history. I would not condone violence, theft, oppression, hostility, injustice, human rights violations, exploitation, etc. I would insist that silence is equal to agreement. I would not allow someone else to manage my language for me, to correct my choice of words, to tell me what to say and how to say it.

No matter the price.

Then, I grew up. I started getting in line. Like everyone else, I had something to lose if I spoke up. If I said “hey, you! You can’t continue to hurt others!” or “read this, it tells a different story,” I would be told by others to get back in line before one of us gets the boot.

Even yesterday, when I voiced a concern that we should avoid using oppressive language, after several incidents when I had kept my mouth shut, I was corrected: “it isn’t oppressive language when nobody is oppressed.” Smile. Put your head down. You can’t fix a broken world. If something is wrong, put a disclaimer on it instead of taking ownership of the mistake.

We are all programmed this way. We look, but we do not see. We hear, but we do not listen. Right under our noses, people are suffering, and we are taught to ignore them. Ignore them or you’re next. That’s the attitude.

Meanwhile, on the surface, we are taught to use nice sounding words and phrase our language in a politically correct manner. This allows us to appear fair and inclusive as a society. Look at us, we’re so humane. We are so forward thinking. We are servants of peace.

The problem is, this is all superficial. I learned a long time ago that appearance and authenticity are two different things entirely. I was a new student at a school made up of over a hundred different nationalities. I was very quick to grasp the concept that there are two forms of diversity: one that is superficial, that you can easily see when you look from the outside in, but that doesn’t necessarily function well as a whole, and one that is beyond the surface, where difference is nurtured and understood, and every single part contributes to the heartbeat of the whole.

The former is just a product of globalization. The latter can only thrive where there is an abundance of love. One thing we all know about love: it requires communication. You cannot love someone while simultaneously silencing them. And so this is where the problem lies. We claim to love everyone, but we are quick to silence those who call out for justice and fairness.

We are all responsible for the condition of our world. When we speak up, or when we are crippled by silence, we contribute tremendously to the future direction of our communities. If we want to build a world full of abundant love, then we must understand that it also requires abundant sacrifice.

On the one hand, my professor may have been trying to scare me in order to prevent my truth and history from being shared. On the other hand, he may have been scared for me, and trying to protect me from a world that often has its death chambers disguised as safe spaces for discourse. Whatever his intention, he was right about one thing: it takes spine to challenge popular opinion, and it is risky, even (maybe especially) when the new perspective is in defence of human rights and dignity.

But, without spine, where would we be? A politically correct superficial sanctuary built on the backs of the invisible… where we can pat ourselves on the shoulder for being such wonderful and linguistically inclusive people, all while ignoring the less rose-tinted reality just beneath the surface. What happens to a world like that?

The truth is… there is no one true truth. Everything is a matter of perspective, including history. Every event that takes place can be described from an infinite number of perspectives. Everything we believe can be challenged. Every action has a reaction of equal force, in the opposite direction. It’s crucial for us to remember that and question, question, question. Don’t just nod, smile, and adopt the new words they teach you so you can appear more inclusive and generous and tolerant. Be more inclusive and generous and tolerant by questioning everything, educating yourself, and standing up against hypocrisy wherever you encounter it.

Fortune and despair, love and hatred, freedom and oppression, unity and division, speech and silence are all separated by the thinnest veil. The distance between here and there isn’t as long as we may think. All you have to do is look behind the disclaimer. Look behind the silent nod. Look behind the forced smile. There you will witness the cost of inaction in an ailing world.

Food for thought.

And remember… we design our own luck!


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