Imagine yourself walking down the street. You see a crowd harassing a man, pushing him, calling him vile names, bullying him… the man looks frightened. Perhaps he is trying to protect someone he’s with, perhaps his wife or child. The crowd, more of a mob now, past reason and spurred on by the force of its own numbers, becomes increasingly violent, both in word and deed. What will you do? Will you have the courage to speak out, to speak up, to stand beside the victim and face the mob?
Or will you slink away, frightened, hoping the mob doesn’t notice you?
Or will you join in, because even though you’re not a bully, certainly not like THOSE people (and you can fill in whatever “those” you’d like — Nazis, KKK members, Spanish Inquisitors…), the mob actually has some truth on its side and you don’t like people like that man, and his wife and his child…
What will you do?
I don’t know what I’d do, only what I hope I’d do.
I was the victim of such a mob, once. I remember all too clearly the terrible, baffling, agonizing realization that truth and justice no longer mattered, that I was utterly alone and that the mob saw me as something less than human. And so, remembering, I hope I would stand on the side of the victim, that I would somehow find the bravery. In my case, a lone man came to my rescue, and it was his sanity and moral courage that defused the mob and quite possibly saved me from harm. I will never forget him. I’d like to think I would do what he did.
And now, it seems, I may have my chance. Because even though I am not on a street, still, I see a mob forming, and if I do nothing, if I say nothing, how can I expect anyone to come to my aid, if the mob someday turns in my direction? More importantly, how can I be silent when I know being silent is a form of complicity, that it is, in short, wrong?
We all know, surely, the quote from Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) regarding the failure of intellectuals in Nazi Germany when group after group was targeted for persecution:
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Well, as writers, we have to speak up. It’s our job. I tell my students that writing is dangerous. I tell them writers are powerful.Words count and they matter. This is what Eric Maisel, a cognitive therapist who specializes in writers, says on the matter:
In many places, the men and women who put out the anti-government newspapers and the anti-gangster leaflets and pamphlets, who dispute the powerful and point a finger at everyday evil, show real bravery and this bravery can and does make positive things happen. That this change is not long-lasting is a testament to the dark underbelly of human nature, but these brave writers are still the human race’s best hope – the best hope for the exploited child worker, the discarded and forgotten prisoner, the threatened democracy, the arrested dissident.
For all of a writer’s weaknesses, for all the ways in which a writer is challenged, this is still his or her supreme strength: to be able to point a finger. It takes no great feat of strength to point a finger, only great courage. For that finger may well get chopped off. But when a writer stands up and pens the words, “I accuse. . . .” the whole world trembles. Governments prepare to topple. Scoundrels run for cover. The small voice of truth clears its throat and the whole world stops and prepares to listen.
It is with this in mind that I think about the shameful, fear-driven, ignorant-heavy rhetoric surrounding Muslims in America these days. I hear about the Qu’ran burnings, demonstrations, hate crimes, incendiary websites, opportunistic politicians… and my heart breaks. Is this who we are? Is this the democracy, founded on principles of tolerance and freedom that I so admire? Is this the face we want to show the world? Is this what we want other, perhaps less tolerant, less democratic societies to emulate?
What are we doing?
Oh, we can justify our intolerance, our violence, our racism and ignorance with all sorts of nonsense about “Those People.” We say they pray to a different god. (They don’t, it’s just that the Arabic name for God is “Allah” as the French name for God is “Dieu.” Muslims also revere Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ.) We say they don’t value life like we do. (And yet we drop enormous bombs on them, although we justify that, too, and we have the death penalty in this country, too, and although some of them do terrible things — think World Trade Center bombing — some of us do as well — think the Oklahoma City bombing.) We say they don’t love their children the way we do. (Although certain Catholic priests seem to be “loving” them a bit too much, wouldn’t you agree?) We fan the flames of separation, of otherness, and in doing so we immolate our own humanity. We turn ourselves to bitter ash.
If we want a peaceful world, we should practice peace. If we want kindness, we should be kind. If we want justice, we should be just. If we want someone to stand beside us, when we are set upon, we must be willing to stand beside them, as well. Will you join me? Will you speak out against racism, against this sort of fear-mongering? Will you join these 9/11 families, these people of moral courage? If you have a blog, if you have a column, if you have a FB page, don’t let the mob win. Send the scoundrels running for cover… join me; raise your voice.
Allow me to end on this note: