In her famous speech “The Conscience of Words,” Susan Sontag said, “The wisdom of literature is quite antithetical to having opinions… furnishing opinions, even correct opinions – whenever asked – cheapens what novelists and poets do best, which is to sponsor reflectiveness, to pursue complexity.” How loudly this resounds in a time when opinions are king and we no longer have the time for reflection, when the divide between friend and enemy seems so clear! Let us not forget that our first judgment may very well be mistaken. Let us not oversimplify the issues or the viewpoints expressed about them.
Having more opinions doesn’t necessarily mean having better ones. Raising your voice to silence others simply makes others raise theirs in response, so that they may continue to hear their words above yours. But silence is complacency, and complacency is complicity; thus it seems as if the choice lies between uselessly adding to the roar of the mob and remaining at home. We seem to be asking, “How do you quiet the world with your voice?” Perhaps we are missing something.
The March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr. was a feat of human organization. It was loud. Its message was focused. The march was populated by passionate activists who did not remain in their homes and came together over fundamental values, speaking together so that they were heard as one voice. In this way, the message of the civil rights movement was able to punch through the white noise of disorganized debate. Their collective volume was louder than that of the sum of the volume of each of its members.
Can we not learn from this lesson? Let us make sure that we are using our discomfort over the problems of our times in the most useful manner, rather than allowing our impetus to act fizzle out. Ought we not come together over the most essential, the most fundamental values, and speak those with a unified voice? How do we find others that feel the same way we do?
Finding those essential truths which we all cherish – and to see that indeed we all do cherish them, as a rule – requires that we refrain for a time from expressing and condemning, and, paradoxically, spend time in silence listening to those shouting around us. This gives us the opportunity to reflect on what our neighbors are saying, and to what we wish to say in turn. What arises is a more complex view of the problem and, perhaps, of the world itself. Disagreements are realized to be misunderstandings. Enemies become friends with slightly different viewpoints. Your reflectiveness inspires others to do the same. In time, voices begin to come together.
This is all started by people reaching out to a person by them and, instead of screaming the same thing at different times, saying:
“Hey, did you notice that we’re saying the same things? Let’s share them together.”
Baileys Harbor, Wis.