The awful silence of good people – UncommonThought – News Block

(Photo: Art and climate change activism, San Francisco 2018 (Fabrice Florin).)

By Ted Glick
Source: Znet

editor’s note

Ted Glick has run into one of the constant frustrations of my life: why don’t people step up and speak up? Regardless of the setting, most people seem content to play the role of bystander. While I have been a so-called “activist” for most of my life, that has largely referred to active participation in a variety of social movements. However, that is not the only place where it is important to stand up for what is right. Those opportunities present themselves everywhere, from the dinner table to the grocery store to the workplace and beyond.

My activism outside of formal movements rests on my commitment to being a good citizen or neighbor. What that citizenship status covers depends on the environment. It can be as a member of the community in a public space or neighborhood, as a parishioner in a place of worship, and in the workplace, to name a few. A very common experience for me has been to be in a work meeting and something comes up that needs to be challenged. I can count on one hand the number of times someone has stood up with me to speak out against a hateful plan or policy. However, there have invariably been people who come in after the meeting to tell me how much they appreciate my speaking. At such times, I find it hard to be graceful. I have told these supportive people numerous times that it is important that they speak up too. Otherwise, managers (people in positions of power), as well as others, think I’m a “minority” voice, or “there goes Rowan again.” In other words, I am a lonely voice and therefore can be ignored. Unfortunately, as a lone voice, I am unable to represent the experiences and perspectives of all those who are marginalized or all the issues that are critical to address, and my voice is minimized because I am only supposed to represent myself and not a broader concern.

People have all kinds of justifications for why they don’t step up, but I think the real reasons are much more personal. People intuitively know that there are personal costs to stepping out of line. While we say we value “individuality” and free speech in America, we all know there are hard and clear lines about how “different” we can be and who really has the “right” to speak.

On a broader collective level, I’ve heard too many times that “progressives” (non-politicians and political activists) believe that thoughtful and caring people don’t need convincing. They will do the right thing, usually when it comes to voting. However, I refuse to allow my voice at any level to be limited to voting, and I highly value voting.

We are at a critical point in our history as a nation and as human beings. The so-called conservatives are a relatively small part of the population, but they are very loud and an even smaller proportion is highly organized. They currently leave with everyone’s lunch while others refuse to get involved. Excuses and justifications for not speaking are no longer acceptable. To fail to act, to be a good role model, is to give tacit approval to those who are leading us to a white Christofascist future and that future is not just the end of democracy, but the end of all hope for social justice and our few possibilities to address the factors that drive climate change.

I am not happy that in order to address our existential environmental crises we must also prevent the Republicans and their base from gaining more power. We do not have time to wait and the losses we are experiencing will take decades or even centuries to reverse. We must cultivate a spirit of being active participants in our world and positive role models to those around us.

ted glick

“Time itself is neutral; it can be used destructively or constructively. I feel more and more that people of ill will have used time much more effectively than people of good will. We need to repent in this generation not only for the hateful words and actions of bad people, but for the appalling silence of good people. Human progress never rolls on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless effort of men and women willing to be God’s collaborators, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, knowing that the time is always ripe to do the right thing.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963)

Two days ago I publicly read these words during a public comment time from a state agency based in Newark, New Jersey, the Passaic Valley Sewer Commission. In the Ironbound environmental justice neighborhood of downtown Newark, an area already served by three gas-fired power plants, PVSC plans to build a four fractured gas power plant. There has been a strong resistance movement against this plan for years, led by local residents, and so far we have blocked it.

As one of the tactics used to fight this project, members of our movement have been attending, in person and virtually, the monthly meetings of this agency. This was probably the 10th such meeting that I have attended and spoken at. Before each meeting, I try to think of a different angle to communicate with PVSC board members. This time, because I read all five of Dr. King’s books several months ago, the idea came to me to read King’s Birmingham jail letter.

I don’t know enough about this group to know how “good” each one of them is, but I’m sure most of them see themselves as upstanding citizens. So when I read it, I emphasized Kng’s line about the “awful silence of good people.”

What King wrote in 1963 is always applicable to one degree or another. There are always people who live decent personal lives, love their family and work hard, but never speak out about systemic injustice and oppression. In fact, successful mass movements like the civil rights/Black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s win important victories in large part because they can dramatically expand the ranks of those willing to speak out and take action.

How can those of us who are already actively working for a just, peaceful and loving world do this today, right now, in this “worst of times” that can also become the “best of times” if we come together, unite do we stand strong and stand firm? organizing?

The most important way is to be a constant good example to others, day after day, hour after hour.

There is a long and deep history in the political left around the world of people who were once revolutionaries seeking justice who became corrupted after they individually, or the movements they led, rose to positions of social power. This historical fact is why we must reject individualistic, patriarchal, and racist models of “leadership” and strive every day to build an internal culture of progressive movement that is cooperative and supportive of everyone within it.

Building this positive way of working together is definitely another key way to help other good people, which is most people, find their voice. It is extremely difficult to have the emotional strength to speak up if there is not a supportive community to do so. That community may be very small, even one or two close friends, but it can make a difference.

But it is more than personal and cultural. It is also critical that good people who are not yet active see actions, events, or demonstrations, in person or electronically, that make it clear that there are a growing number of people coming together and throwing in. We need mass movements. Dr. King deeply believed that the key to fundamental social transformation, to revolutionary change, is the tactic of mass nonviolent direct action. He believed that based on his practical experience in the brutally segregated South. Ever the visionary, he wrote in the Birmingham letter:

“It is time to realize the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national politics from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

True then, still true now. Good people, speak up and stand up!

ted glick He has dedicated his life to the progressive movement for social change. After a year of student activism as a sophomore at Grinnell College in Iowa, he left college in 1969 to work full-time against the Vietnam War. As an opponent of the Selective Service, he spent 11 months in prison. In 1973, he co-founded the National Committee to Impeach Nixon and worked as a national coordinator for grassroots street actions across the country, holding down Nixon until his resignation in August 1974. Since late 2003, Ted has played a leadership role in the effort to stabilize our climate and for a renewable energy revolution. He was a co-founder in 2004 of the Climate Crisis Coalition and in 2005 he coordinated the USA Join the World effort that led to the December actions at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Montreal. In May 2006, he began working with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and was CCAN’s National Campaign Coordinator until his retirement in October 2015. He is a co-founder (2014) and one of the leaders of the Beyond group Extreme Energy. He is chair of the 350NJ/Rockland group, the steering committee of the DivestNJ Coalition, and the leadership group of the Climate Reality Check network.

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