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.