The Stories We Tell Ourselves to Justify Our Silence
by Annie Leonard
November 24, 2015
In the wake of last night’s direct attack on #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators in Minneapolis at a protest against the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark, I feel compelled to share some thoughts.
Over the last year, I’ve been moved by stories about #BlackLivesMatter, systemic racism, horrifying specific incidents of racial profiling and violence, as well as what it means to be a white ally. But I’ve commented on and shared very few, let alone written my own. I told myself that nothing I could say would be as articulate as some of the incredibly insightful articles making the rounds. I felt that I should step aside to ensure space for the voices so often marginalized from public discussions. I thought that others have far more expertise and work more directly on these issues, so I was hesitant to weigh in and was largely silent. Even though that silence didn’t feel good.
Then, this summer, I went to Portland, Oregon, where Greenpeace climbers and a flotilla of local activists in kayaks staged a multi-day aerial and water blockade to prevent Shell Oil’s icebreaker from traveling to the Arctic to take part in oil drilling operations. We were blocking the ship out of necessity; science tells us that extracting and burning Arctic oil is incompatible with keeping global temperatures within a safe range for human society as we know it.
During the blockade, I spent hours wandering among the crowds of local supporters who gathered in the park to watch. I talked to people all day long. Often our conversations were about climate change, and what it would take to force our elected leaders and businesses to take ambitious action to solve this problem. We already have much of what we need to transition to a clean energy economy; we have renewable energy technologies, super efficient transportation alternatives, climate-sensitive building design, model policies from other countries.
The one thing we’re missing so far is a public movement powerful enough to force our leaders to act. So, I spent my hours during the blockade recruiting people to join this movement. More voices means more power to make change.
Over and over, people responded that they cared deeply about climate, but were hesitant to speak since they weren’t experts.
They deferred to others who knew more and worked more directly on the issue. They wanted to make space for those more immediately impacted. They felt they had little to add to the conversation. So they were silent even though being silent didn’t feel good.
I reassured them that we need all voices — not just climate experts. That every voice adds to the overall volume of the conversation. That it is important to have all kinds of people, from all walks of life, be part of this movement — whether you’re new to it or a many-year climate veteran.
All of a sudden, I stopped. I realized that, when it came to #BlackLivesMatter, I wasn’t holding myself to the same standard that I was hoping to inspire others to.
I realized that I was using the same logic these concerned but silent people were. I had told myself a story that justified my silence, just as these people had told themselves a similar story. I needed to listen to my own advice: you don’t have to be an expert to join in the call for a safe and just future.
I thought of Maya Angelou’s quote: “The best way to give away your power is to think you don’t have any.” And I thought of something Rinku Sen said: “Once you start learning about racial justice, the learning never stops.” If that is so, we can’t afford to wait until we “know enough” to raise our voices.
Shortly after, Greenpeace posted on its Facebook page to honor the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. It felt right not to stay silent. That post generated support from much our of community, but also push back from some saying that Greenpeace, as environmentalists, didn’t have a role talking about #BlackLivesMatter.
This idea that only “issue experts” can or should talk about problems is a dangerous one.
It creates a kind of unwritten socially enforced silence that keeps millions of voices out of critically important conversations. And that’s a problem, because whether we’re fighting for racial justice or a clean energy economy, we need millions of voices.
The best way to erode this collective silence is to use our voices; speak up even when we’re intimidated, fearful or facing backlash. Greenpeace believes that we can’t have a green and peaceful planet without justice: climate justice, economic justice and racial justice. And we certainly won’t achieve this without a movement that is big and diverse enough that everyone has a voice.
I am committing to use mine more loudly and more often in my calls for justice. I hope you’ll join me.