This Is Why People Don’t Speak Up

Our country is buzzing right now about the actions of one football player, Colin Kaepernick, who took a brave but perhaps imprudent stand last Friday.  In case you missed it, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback sat down during the playing of the national anthem before a preseason football game to protest what he perceives as racial injustice in America.  In response, Americans are whirling and heated debates are flaring.  Did he have a right to protest in such a manner?  Was he just blatantly disrespectful to the country and the people that have fought for our freedoms?  Was he overreacting?  What did he hope to accomplish?  Was he wrong to do it while he was at work?  Was he wrong to do it at all?

The questions have been debated on talk radio, social media, television and water coolers across the nation.  There are many issues to contemplate, including patriotism, freedom of speech, respect, racism, work ethics, athleticism and tradition.  This blog isn’t about those issues.  I want to address a different issue – one that each of us faces almost every day.

When should a person stand up for what they believe in, and when should they keep their mouth shut?

This isn’t a simple question to answer.

As everything has been unfolding, one thought just keeps entering my mind.  “This is why people don’t speak up.”  Kaepernick may have wanted a certain amount of exposure for his actions, but I don’t know if he expected his future in the NFL to be contested or if he wanted this level of scrutiny – and Kaepernick is a public figure.  He’s used to and perhaps even covets the spotlight.  What about the rest of us, who are maybe a bit more comfortable on the sidelines?  We see Kaepernick stand up against something he sees as an injustice, and we see him brutally ostracized by the media and football fans and the general American public.  Is that supposed to make us want to fight for what we believe in, or is it more likely to keep us sitting quietly with our hands folded in our laps?

It’s not just sports or politics where the question of standing up for what we believe in pops up.  In business, it’s very common for leaders to motivate their employees using such phrases as, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.”  The idea is that taking risks and being proactive is better than waiting for someone to bless your actions with holy water before allowing you to proceed.  Sure, this phrase has more to do with achievement than social protest, but the principle still applies.  We are encouraged to act, not sit.  And yet, often after we act, we are, indeed, required to beg for forgiveness, and sometimes our actions remain unforgiven indefinitely.  There are certainly mixed messages here.

Are we complicit if we see an injustice and sit idly by, saying and doing nothing to stop it?  To varying degrees, we definitely are.  There’s a very real implication of guilt placed on those that stand aside and do nothing when they witness a crime or injustice.  In law enforcement, citizens can even be charged with aiding and abetting, conspiracy or criminal facilitation for knowing about a crime and failing to say anything.  Speaking out when you see an injustice isn’t technically aiding and abetting a criminal, yet the standard has been set.  As Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”

If we aren’t doing anything about a cause, do we have a right to comment on the way other people fight for it?  It’s very easy to sit on the fringes and critique the manner in which people choose to fight for their beliefs.  It’s another thing entirely to do the fighting.  Earlier this year, when accepting BET’s Humanitarian Award for his work with Black Lives Matter, Jesse Williams stated, “If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.  If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do.  Sit down.”  Colin Kaepernick stood up for black people in America, and in doing so he unwittingly invited a whole lot of idle people to critique the manner of his resistance.  Is it more important to do something, or to do it without offending anyone?

I can think of many times that I wanted to stand up for an injustice, but I cared more about self-protection to act.  I can vividly recall an afternoon when a recently appointed interim CEO made an excruciatingly off-color sexual joke in front of me and four of my male coworkers.  It was really gross.  And I grew up with two brothers!  I’m used to sexist jokes!  I was appalled, and I wanted to run from the room, or give him a piece of my mind, but instead I did absolutely nothing.  Actually, I might have smiled indulgently.  Why?  Because this dirty old man had power over my career at the company, and I didn’t think it was worth losing my job to stand up to him.  I can still feel the embarrassment and shame of sitting in that room and staying silent, and I regret that I didn’t speak up.

The most important time to stand up for your beliefs is often the least convenient time to do so. It wasn’t convenient for me to stand up for myself in my boss’s office, but it was important for me to do so.  I wish I could turn back time, but I can’t – all I can do is learn.  I can do better next time.

The people that stand up for what they believe in may be naïve, idealistic, angry, jaded, powerful, weak, or anything and everything in between, but they all have one thing in common.  Courage.  The people that stand up when they see injustice in the world are brave.  And we can definitely use more bravery in the world.

I, admittedly, usually put my self-interests over the pressing social issues of our day.  Maybe that’s because of a combination of fear, apathy, cowardice and laziness.  Maybe I’m just too afraid of what everyone else is going to say.  Maybe I’m fearful that I’ll say something at the wrong moment, or in the wrong tone, or while wearing the wrong uniform.

Maybe I learn a little bit from Colin Kaepernick’s courage and say what I need to say, anyway.

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” ~ Albert Einstein


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