The Sin of Silence

I believe there are two major types of wrongs that people commit in this world. There are passive wrongs, and there are active wrongs. While that separation makes great material for philosophical debate, the fact remains that both types are exactly what they say they are—wrongs.

On an international scale, al Qaeda’s September 11th attack was an active wrong. Osama’s band of terrorist thugs directly perpetrated a damaging act, and should be justly punished. But an important aspect of post-September 11th policy involved people who had committed passive wrongs.

For example, the Taliban government of Afghanistan did not perpetrate the murder of those three thousand innocent people—in fact they had some pretty glaring philosophical disagreements with al Qaeda—but by standing by inactive and knowingly allowing terrorist groups to continue their activities, they made themselves just as culpable for the murderous events of last year as those who hijacked the planes.

But where I’m going with this today is not into the realm of international politics, in fact I’m not even going to deal with politics except insofar as I have already. My topic today deals with interpersonal wrongs, when one person does something bad to another.

As with most everybody else, I can honestly claim to having been wronged by people some number of times—whether it come from ex-girlfriends, ex-almost-girlfriends, friends, acquaintances, companies, or schools. As much as it hurts to find out that you’ve been romantically involved with a liar or cheater, as much as it hurts to have people tell mistruths about you, as utterly painful as those things can be it is when others commit related passive wrongs that I find myself most disillusioned.

Those among my readers who have been following my “what’s up!?” column are well aware that I have recently found myself the victim of a vitriolic and lengthy attack from a former friend of mine, Ms. Michelle Farrar. So much as I have tried, I have been entirely unable to find any coherent reason whatsoever why she has chosen to direct her rage at me. But as infuriating as her behavior has been, it is rather the inaction—the silence—of others that has frustrated me to the point of exasperation.

Under the guise of neutrality or indifference, some people that I know and have considered my friends have chosen to give their de facto blessings to the mistruths that have been spread about me by either supporting them with similar rhetoric or by effective silence on the issue. By failing to denounce the hateful words of she who has committed an active wrong, many others have committed passive wrongs that have proven collectively more damaging.

I was reminded today of a great Bible story, and while I know that many of you aren’t Christian I hope you’ll bear with me anyway. In Luke 10:30-37, Jesus tells a parable about a guy who gets the crap beat out of him by robbers and is left seriously injured by the side of a road. After some time, a preacher comes by and nervously keeps walking. After a little longer, another guy comes by and does the same. Eventually, a guy who is really an outcast comes by and takes pity on the man, helps him out, and takes care of paying to get him all fixed up.

While the robbers had obviously committed the active wrong—beating the crap out of some guy walking down the road—the preacher and the other guy committed passive wrongs of equal magnitude by their failure to act. According to the parable, it’s the outcast who had the courage to do the right thing who should serve as the example we should all follow.

The outcast, of course, was a Samaritan—from whom the term ‘good Samaritan’ originates.

My point in bringing this up is that we can all be judged as easily by our inaction as we can by our action. Failing to do the right thing can, in many situations, be just as egregious as doing the wrong thing.

One of my acquaintances involved in this terrible mess Ms. Farrar created committed his own, comparatively minor, active wrong earlier on. As recently as this week, he continued to profusely apologize for having done what he did. What he fails to understand, however, is that my festering anger toward him revolves not around what he did but rather what he has not done. He has not told me that what Ms. Farrar did was wrong, he has not told me he disagrees with her, and he has not lifted one finger of public support toward me in the face of an entirely unjustified onslaught. No, instead he has continued to lend her unfettered support which—by its very nature—supports what she has done to and said about me.

Some have told me I am unjustified in harboring anger toward this person. Some have told me that he is not responsible for Ms. Farrar’s actions, and I agree on that point. But responsible or not, his inaction constitutes de facto agreement with every word she has said. I cannot remain friends with somebody who would support such hurtful slander against anybody, let alone against me.

We all have a responsibility to live our lives in a good way. We have a responsibility to treat fellow human beings with respect no matter how much we disagree with them. We have a responsibility to be honest, forthright, and accurate in our day-to-day lives. More importantly, however, we have a responsibility to demand those very same things from others. When somebody close to us fails to meet those responsibilities, we have a responsibility to let them know.

Friends and lovers aren’t in our lives as trophies or to be mindlessly agreeable, no, they’re in our lives to keep us in line, let us know respectfully when they think we’re wrong, and be there for us when we need them. We owe it to our friends and lovers to provide the same services for them in return. If they fail to respect our views (regardless of if they agree with them) then they are indeed proving that they are unworthy of our affections. If they expect us to just agree with every word they say, then they are in the relationship for nothing more than their own selfish reasons.

To stand by silently when one person in your life victimizes another, you not only help to ensure the disagreeable behavior will continue but you also open yourself up to criticism for that same behavior. You might not have committed the sin, but you have indeed committed the sin of silence—one which weighs with equal weight on the countenance of the person who became the victim. In doing so, you shortchange both your victimized friend and your own set of ethics, destroying a relationship in the process.

I believe in the Christian values of forgiveness. While I can and will forgive the people who have actively and passively wronged me when they truly and sincerely ask for it, I am not required—nor am I likely—to be so trusting in these individuals in the future. Their failure to denounce Ms. Farrar’s slanderous lies for what they were prove how little they valued my friendship, and what better way to determine how much I should value theirs?

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.