The Sound of Silence*

If you ask most people whether bigotry and the hate crimes that go with it are wrong, they’ll probably tell you ‘Yes, of course they’re wrong!’ And yet, we all know that that sort of hatred is out there. People make slurs of all kinds, and there are all sorts of reports of hate/bigotry incidents. In the US alone, the FBI reported over five thousand such incidents in 2020. That’s for just one year, and just the incidents that were serious enough to be reported. Hate speech, bullying, and so on go on all the time.

So why do these things happen? More to the point, why don’t they stop? The answer is complex, but part of it is arguably that people don’t always speak up when they see/hear bigotry in action. There are several reasons for that, of course. Some people are afraid of what will happen to them if they do speak up. Some people tell themselves, ‘It’s just a joke,’ or ‘It’s not like there was violence.’ Admittedly, it’s a lot harder to speak up than it is for me to write about it. But let’s look at what happens when people are silent about what goes on. A quick glance at crime fiction is enough to show us:

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack is the story of Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano, a police detective in late-1970s Buenos Aires. It’s a very dangerous time to live and work in that city; thousands of people have ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the ruling right-wing junta. Lescano knows that anything he says or does could get him killed if he’s not very careful. One day, he gets called to a riverbank where two bodies were discovered. The murders bear all the hallmarks of an army ‘hit,’ and Lescano knows the consequences if he doesn’t ‘rubber-stamp’ the murders the way the army wants him to do. Then, he discovers a third body, and this murder looks different to the other two. Now, Lescano has to find out who the murderer is without getting himself killed in the process. It turns out that the victim is successful pawnbroker Elías Biterman. And right there, Lescano runs into a challenge. Biterman was Jewish, and there are plenty of people who don’t see the point of investigating the death of ‘just another Jew.’ It’s not spoiling the story to say that Biterman wasn’t killed because of his religion. But it’s fair to say that not speaking up against, in this case, antisemitism, has played a role in many people’s attitudes about the death of this man.

Both Abir Mukharjee and Brian Stoddart have written series that take place in India during the last years of the British raj. In both series, the protagonist is a white police detective who sees the consequences of bigotry in several cases. People don’t generally speak up against the racism that’s woven into many people’s social attitudes. And the people in power want to stay in power. So, there is simmering resentment – even hatred – among the Indians. There is fear and hatred among many of the English,  too,  or if not hatred, there’s often a smug sense of superiority. Speaking out against this bigotry has serious consequences, so a lot of people don’t. And that leads to real tragedy in both series.

In Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, which takes place beginning in 1806, we are introduced to William Thornhill, a London bargeman who can barely afford to feed his family. One day, he gives in to temptation and takes a load of high-quality lumber – cargo that he can sell. He’s arrested and sentenced to be executed. At the last minute, though, his sentence is changed to transportation to Australia. So, Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children make the long trip. When they get there, Thornhill finds work making deliveries up and down the Hawkesbury River. Of course, there’ve been people living in the area for many thousands of years, and there is tension between the newly arrived English and the Aboriginal people. As Thornhill makes his deliveries, he sees the ugly side of this tension. He wants no part of it, and tries to keep out of it all, but that proves to be nearly impossible. And speaking up against what he sees could get Thornhill in a great deal of trouble – or worse.

There’s also Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird. In that novel, we are introduced to Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. He has very mixed feelings about his home ‘turf’ in East Texas. On the one hand, it’s his home. On the other, he is Black, and racism plays a major role in the way people interact. He’s strongly considering leaving Texas and completing law school (and that’s what his wife Lisa wants). But then, two bodies are pulled from a bayou near Lark, Texas. One is Michael Wright, a successful Black attorney from Chicago. The other is Missy Dale, a local white woman. There’s a strong possibility that a far-right white supremacist group, the Aryan Brotherhood, is responsible, and Matthews is asked to investigate and help bring the group down. It won’t be easy, though. The local Blacks know that, even though Matthews is Black, the local sheriff, who is white, will not hesitate to pin the murders on a Black person, so they aren’t willing to help. The local whites are equally unlikely to be helpful. They know that Matthews is doing his job, but the systemic racism of the area is difficult to overcome. For a variety of reasons, people generally don’t speak up about what everyone knows goes on. I can say without spoiling the story that it’s not a stereotypical ‘race-related’ murder. But race issues are tightly integrated into the plot, and they are depicted as an important part of the way life is in East Texas.

There are many, many other novels in which we see what happens when people don’t speak up against hatred and bigotry of all kinds. In the best novels, the reasons are presented as the complex web of factors that they are in real life. And in real life, the consequences of not speaking out can be devastating.

ps. The photograph is of a mezzuzah. The scroll inside is a traditional Hebrew blessing on Jewish homes. There are plenty of places where Jews do not feel safe displaying the mezzuzah. When people keep silent, bigotry holds full sway. 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Simon and Garfunkel song.


14 thoughts on “The Sound of Silence*

  1. Racism and bigotry is rampant in our society and throughout the world. I agree with you, Margot, that it’s important to call it out when it happens but it’s not always easy to do. It takes strength of character. Thanks for writing about this important subject. Such books ought to be on high school or at least college curriculum. But guess what? They would likely be banned.

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    1. You’re right, Carol. It is hard to call out bigotry, and it does take strength of character. Calling out bigotry, as hard as it is, is what keeps hatred from becoming ‘normal.’ The minute something becomes ‘normal,’ we become dulled to it. And I don’t think we can afford to do that. You’re right, too, about putting these books in secondary schools and universities. It’s an excellent idea, but I’ll bet a lot of people would vote to ban them..

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  2. Excellent examples Margot. I thought of Inspector Chen from the mysteries of Qui Xiaolong. Chen walks a tightrope in totalitarian Communist China of the 1990’s. Every investigation is political as well as criminal. He does not protest openly but he works hard to prevent political solutions to murder.

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    1. Thanks, Bill. You you’re right about Chen. In his world, speaking up can seal someone’s death warrant. But he has his ways of finding out the truth and, as you say, preventing political solutions to murder. He walks a very thin line.

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  3. Great post, Margot and you’re so right when you say “When people keep silent, bigotry holds full sway”. It can be really hard to put yourself on the line and speak out, but if we don’t it’s a slippery slope which ends up in a very bad place…

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  4. That Kate Grenville book made me think about the history of the British and the Aboriginals more than anything I’d ever read before. And about 20 years ago we had an Australian woman to stay with us, she was part of the same fandom as me and we were going to see one of the actors perform in a play locally. She was very nice, until we happened to mention the Aboriginals, just in passing, and off she went on some awful tirade about them. Me, my husband, my daughter, we stood there absolutely astonished. I’ve since heard that this is quite a common thing to happen. And you mention India. I read an article a while ago – two Indians working together here in the UK. But the one in charge was a lower caste than his colleague so what was happening was that the man in charge was having difficulty getting his subordinate to do what he was told, plus this man spent his time undermining the one in charge with their other colleagues. To the point where the lower caste man was seriously considering giving up his job. This is such a fascinating subject, Margot. I think we may be programmed to be suspicious of anyone who is different, be it by colour, disability, the nerdy kid at school, whatever. How you break through that I just don’t know. Some seem to be able to do it easily, others not and actually seem to enjoy persecuting anyone who is different. Fascinating subject, Margot.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Cath, and for sharing your experiences. That sort of prejudice can happen anyway, as you found. And it all shows that people can be very suspicious (and much, much worse) of anyone who’s different, as you say, for any reason. And you’re right about the Grenville; that one really explores that sort of suspicion and the terrible consequences when hatred and bigotry are allowed full sway. How do we break through it? I don’t have the answers. But research on students has shown that, when they work on projects and assignments together, they get to know each other as people, rather than just members of one group or another. Barriers get broken down, and there is a great deal less likelihood of slurs, hate speech and outward bigotry. It’s not a cure-all, but if kids can learn to see one another as people, as individuals with their own selves, perhaps that’ll make a difference.

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  5. Excellent post, Margot, let’s hope that the next generations coming through will be much more tolerant and inclusive than previous generations. Education may well play a part not just in discussing prejudice and bigotry (and much more) but in addressing it with such things as you indicated (working together on projects etc). But it also needs shifts in Government policies, processes and procedures along wholesale attitudinal changes in individuals, groups and communities. A large part is played by parents/guardians who so easily pass on their own prejudices (knowingly or not). Attitudes become institutionalised whether in families, groups or communities it was fascinating and saddening to read Caths comments. This really needs a multi faceted approach especially if individuals are to feel safe standing up to these things. Let’s hope it can be done.
    Thank you for keeping it at the forefront of our minds. J

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    1. Thanks, Janet. I agree with you that we need a multi-faceted international approach to dealing with bigotry and the sort of hate that leads to violence. Certainly government policies, procedures and so on are important. To me, it’s also important that those leaders model the sort of welcoming acceptance of diversity that they talk about in position papers. And, yes, schools also have important roles to play. Teachers and administrators at all levels need to model and coach working peacefully with others. There’s also, as you say, the critical role that parents and families play. That’s much tricker, but if parents teach positive interactions, that’s what children learn. In other words, we do need a change in societal attitudes. That will take time, effort, and everyone’s good will. Hopefully we can make it happen. I’m quite certain, though, that it only makes it harder when people are allowed to get away with bigoted, hate-filled behaviour with no consequences. That’s where speaking up can help.

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