When Silence is Betrayal

By Martyna Olejnik 

The recent events worldwide, whether it be the protests in support of the BLM movement or against the attempts of certain governments to limit or retract LGBTQ rights, forced me to take a step back and reconsider my own role in speaking up and advocating for those of lesser privilege.

Although I believe that each person has their own way of showing support, be it through educating themselves, using their online platforms to amplify voices of the movements, or having difficult conversations with their friends and family, it seems as though we have become quick to dismiss that any actions are being taken if not shared on social media. With the wave of advocating for Black lives or the LGBTQ community on your Instagram stories came also the shaming of those who chose not to post and focus on other ways to help these movements. I am not trying to deny the power that social media can have, however, what I am trying to say is that it is far too common for people to treat posting on Instagram as action enough, or worse, posting simply as a result of bandwagoning.

To me, silence on social media can be justifiable if paired with actions in real life or if performed with the specific purpose of providing space for the voices of the movements themselves. What is important to note is that I am thinking strictly from the point of view of someone who primarily uses social media to connect with friends and does not have an extensive platform or following. The issue surely carries a different tone when considered from the perspective of brands or influencers. Although not our main focus, it is interesting to consider how the responsibility to speak up online and the genuineness of your motives shifts with the number of followers you have. Does the benefit of contributing to the education of your audience on, say Black history, outweighs the harm you might be causing by treating the movement as a ‘trend’ or a way to boost your personal brand? 

I have started to consider — if silence on social media can be justified, what about silence in real life? Is it ever okay to choose not to speak up when someone is being openly racist or homophobic? No. The disparity in my instincts regarding silence on social media versus silence in real life pushed me to consider what is really so different between the two. Why is it justifiable to not post on social media in support of the movement but it is not justifiable to not speak up when you hear something racist or homophobic?

One especially important factor is influence. You are surely more likely to influence your acquaintances, friends, or family by directly calling them out on their behaviour rather than by posting an Instagram story. You are surely more likely to influence your government and its policies by going out on the streets and protesting than by posting an Instagram story. You see my point. Once more I would like to highlight that I am in no way saying that showing your support on social media is bad or useless; quite the contrary. I believe that social media is an extremely useful tool, especially when traditional media do not cover certain important issues or portray protests and movements in a highly biased way. I am only trying to consider why my intuitions lead me to believe that while silence on social media can be justifiable, silence in real life cannot.

I would also like to come back to the purpose of silence. While silence on social media can be intentional and purposeful, silence in real life serves no objective at all. I cannot imagine how it would serve anyone not to speak up against racism or homophobia when you hear someone perpetuating it. The only purpose it serves is reassuring the person with the racist or homophobic behaviour that what they are doing is acceptable, which consequently gives them a green light to further continue acting in this way. Having said that, I think it is crucial to note that speaking up in real life is not always easy. Standing up to figures of authority, like your parents and other family members, or even to your peers, can be a terrifying experience. It is not however a reason not to try; your genuine effort and attempt really does go a long way. 

What would happen if we flipped the assumption of justifiability of silence in real life? Is silence in real life acceptable if paired with speaking up on social media? What is the value of an Instagram story in support of Black lives if posted only to make someone feel better about themselves? Does it have an intrinsic value even if not backed up by actual actions? To me, this is a definite no. In this odd pairing, one’s activism online can be seen as highly instrumental, either for show, to fit in, or to impress your peers, serving your personal ends rather than the goal of amplifying the movement. What is also far too common is people treating supportive social media posts as a form of absolution and exemption from all their wrongdoings. Has Instagram become a priest absolving us from our sins in exchange for posting a black square? It is surely far easier to take a minute to post an Instagram story and feel like you have done your duty rather than harshly reevaluate your actions and behaviours, question whether you have, perhaps unknowingly, been perpetuating some microaggressions towards people of color or non-heteronormative peers.

Having said all that, it is still crucial to note that hatred does not exist in isolation. It is the system that people live in and interact with everyday, not their inherent prejudice, that makes them treat people as inferior. Nobody is born with intrinsic hate — it is an acquired ‘skill’. For that reason, as important as it is to fight racism and homophobia where you see it in everyday life (whether online or in real life), it is even more important to target the systemic structures that make people of color and sexualities other than heterosexuality disadvantaged, omitted, and oppressed.

Edited by Karolina Hajna

Artwork by Mira Kurtovic