The Dangerous Silence
You've probably heard by now about the upcoming apartheid colloquium and panel discussion on Nov. 6 and 7. Maybe you've pushed them out of your mind by now, too. After all, South Africa is many miles from here and has nothing to do with your life at MIT, right? Besides, your next problem set (the one that is really going to cause you trouble) is due the day after the colloquium. Or maybe the issue of apartheid is too complex for you to take a definite stand on -- there are always two sides to every story.
I recognize this kind of thinking. I've thought that way, too. No matter how sympathetic I was to a particular issue when I was in college, my immediate concerns always seemed to be more pressing. Sometimes the issue was too confusing, and I'd take refuge in the contradictions: if the experts can't agree, how can I be expected to come to a decision which I could support wholeheartedly? So I'd avoid attending that sit-in or protest rally and go back to reading my textbooks, hoping to find some clear unambiguous answers. And sometimes the issue wasn't concrete enough for me to really care. Things sounded bad in the abstract, but that's the way they always stayed -- abstractions I could too easily ignore.
Then I began to realize that not acting is itself an action, one which was cheating me most of all because it left me feeling powerless. It also began to dawn on me that I couldn't really escape into neutrality by not taking a stand. My silent voice would always be counted as a vote in support of the status quo. As a result I began to get more involved. I became more informed (reading newspapers and watching the evening news helped as did attending seminars and colloquia). I tried to make decisions about what I felt was right despite ambiguity (and don't let anyone kid you -- ambiguity is always there) and then act on those decisions in whatever way I could.
For example, I read recently in The Boston Globe about a case of a Chinese immigrant who, through an apparent case of mistaken identity, was arrested for soliciting a prostitute and then beaten by the police in the process of the arrest. I read about his plight with anger and was about to toss the paper in the wastebasket when a quote came to me: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." The more I avoided doing anything, the more the quote stuck with me. I finally sent a contribution to his defense fund, wrote him a letter expressing my concern, and fired off an irate letter to the editor of The Boston Globe. I followed his case with great interest after that and was pleased to learn that he was acquitted of all charges, and that the policeman involved was suspended from the force after a well-publicized investigation. Public outcry over this case certainly helped move things along: I count myself among those who made their opinions known.
If you're still asking yourself why you should give up an afternoon or evening to listen to people discuss apartheid (or AIDS or pornography), all I can tell you is that getting educated and involved works, and remaining ignorant and uninvolved doesn't. What you choose to do with your time is up to you, but remember -- if you decide not to do anything, you've made a commitment to inaction and to implicit support of the status quo. Is that the kind of commitment you really want to make?