When asking a classroom of high schoolers to weigh in on something—perhaps about an upcoming assignment, or how something will be run in class—the teacher is often confronted with a beguiling silence. After a few of these inconclusive sessions, I started using a phrase with them that I think has deeper societal implications: “Your silence is your consent.”
Our society takes this phrase as its unofficial motto; if no one is complaining, then it must be okay. Anybody want a new luxury apartment building built? (Insert cricket noises.) Okay! How about the eventual destruction of our honey bee population? (Insert the sound of one hand clapping.) No problem! We'd really like to track all your phone conversations, e-mails, and texts. (Insert the noise of planets moving through space.) Great!
I admire the patience of those who can stay silent. It's like those contests to see who can endure pain the longest. In the end, it seems no one wins.
So, I ask myself, being an artist, What is art? Art is, among other things, the act of speaking up and out. The artist is saying, We do not consent! We want change! or, perhaps, Yes! This is good! Keep it up!
I recently attended a performance of a new theatre piece called When Stars Align, based on a book of the same name. In it, racial conflict is explored through the eyes of slaves and free men before, during, and after the American Civil War. The plot is heavy-handed (honestly, it was assembled as if it would be performed for third graders, though its content was strictly adult) along with the message, but it is clearly meant to speak to us today, to say maybe we haven't learned as much as we ought have about equality. We do not consent to the subjugation, to the indiscriminate killing of “black” men, of any man, woman, or child.
What about when the voice is forcibly silenced? I have just learned of a school in New York where the board rejected a proposal by the high school to perform the classic play Inherit the Wind. It is a historical play about what has come to be known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, where creationism and evolution were first put head-to-head in a court of law. This is an irrefutable piece of history which is taught freely in classrooms across the state of New York, if not the whole country, not to mention that Inherit the Wind appears on the suggested reading list for high schoolers. Yet this school district has silenced this play on the grounds that it is too religious. (Incidentally, I performed in the same play at the same school thirteen years ago. How times change.)
I've gotten to a point in my life where I don't have many fears, but I have to be perfectly frank: censorship scares me. It is the idea of someone screaming and there being no sound. It is the idea of a thousand million people crying out for justice and no one hearing. Could you imagine a world where the Romans burned every last document they came across, effectively erasing centuries of history? Where would we be? How would we be?
Your silence is your consent that the old ways are best and there couldn't possibly be a better way. Your silence is your consent that there's nothing we can do about anything so we'd better just give up. Your silence is your consent that the poor will always struggle and die, the rich will always inherit the earth, the wicked will always turn the good, the vain will always win, the over-conceited will always be right. Your silence is your consent. What can you do?