I don’t believe that “silence is violence,” ever. And I doubt that anyone else would either, if they were to spend a bit of time thinking about it. People remain silent when they see violence (either threatened or performed) for a wide variety of reasons: sometimes they are indifferent to the sufferings of others, sometimes they enjoy the sufferings of others, but sometimes they have quite legitimate fears that any protest will lead to violence being inflicted upon them without anyone else being saved. Protest is not inevitably successful, and truthful accusation does not inevitably lead to arrest and conviction. Moreover, there are ways other than speech of responding to, or striving to prevent, impermissible violence.
Even when one’s silence does make it more likely that someone will be hurt, we do not benefit from erasing the distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission. Indifference to the suffering of others is a grave sin, but there are sins still graver. And different. As Auden wrote in his poem “The More Loving One,”
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
So, no: it is untrue that silence is violence.
Shall we say, then, that silence is complicit in violence? It’s obvious why that is a more defensible argument, but it is not as dispositive as people who use it believe. I recently wrote something about Israel and Gaza, but I didn’t do it because people told me that otherwise I would have been complicit in the violence done there – though indeed people did tell me that. I wrote it for my own reasons, not because I felt that I was complicit in anything.
There are more evil things going on in the world than any one person can respond to. You could spend all day every day on social media just declaring that you denounce X or Y or Z and never get to the end of what deserves to be denounced. If my silence about Gaza is complicit in the violence being done there, what about my silence regarding the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uighurs? Or the government of Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya? Or what Boko Haram has done in Nigeria? Or what multinational corporations do to destroy our environment? Or dogfighting rings? Or racism in the workplace? Or sexism in the workplace?
There are two possible responses to this problem. One is to say that I am inevitably complicit in every act of violence I do not denounce, even if it would be impossible for me to denounce all such acts. But that position leads to a despairing quietism: Why should I denounce anything if in so doing I remain guilty for leaving millions of violent acts undenounced?
The second way is better: pick your spots and pick them unapologetically. It’s perfectly fine for people to have their own causes, the causes that for whatever reason touch their hearts. We all have them, we are all moved more by some injustices than by others; not one of us is consistently concerned with all injustices, all acts of violence, nor do we have a clear system of weighting the various sufferings of the world on a scale and portioning out our attention and concern in accordance with a utilitarian calculus.
Some effective altruists, especially the so-called longtermists, try to do this, but their endeavor is full of errors. One is longtermism’s inevitably speculative character, its belief that future dangers to humanity can be predicted with sufficient reliability to guide our actions. A greater error inheres in the great unstated axiom of effective altruism: Money is the only currency of compassion. (As the Archbishop of Canterbury says in Charles Williams’s poem Taliessen through Logres, “Money is a medium of exchange.”)
The silence-is-violence crowd, to their credit, don’t think that money is the only commodity we have to spend: they think we can and must spend our words also. And they always believe they know what, in a given moment, we must spend our words on. What they never seen to realize, though, is that some words are a debased currency. As the Lord says to Job, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” To speak “words without knowledge” is to “darken counsel,” that is, confuse the issue, mislead or confuse one’s hearers. The purpose of counsel is to illuminate a situation; one does not illuminate anything by speaking out of ignorance or mere rage.
Above all we need to acknowledge that no one — no one — operates with consistency in these matters. As David Edmonds writes in his recent biography of the philosopher Derek Parfit, Parfit refused to meet with a dying friend, Susan Hurley — a fellow philosopher who was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford — because he considered it more important to work on his philosophical writing. Yet Edmonds reports on several acts of generosity by Parfit, acts which also deprived him of work time. Similarly, as Julian Baggini writes in a review of Edmonds’s book,
He objected to the effective altruism movement’s Giving What We Can pledge to donate at least 10 per cent of signees’ incomes to relieve poverty, because he thought it was obvious that people could donate more. He also objected to the word “giving” for implying that this was optional, when he thought we were not morally entitled to our wealth. Yet in the years when he pursued photography as a serious hobby, he would spend thousands of pounds on a single print. Obsessed with typesetting, he offered to reimburse his publisher Oxford University Press for the extra costs of following his strict instructions, on one occasion paying £3,000 for wet proofs to check how the pages would actually come out from the plates. He also overpaid for a house by £50,000 just because he fell in love with it.
I am sure that Parfit thought of himself as a principled actor, but he certainly wasn’t: like almost all of us, he acted according to his own preferences. I’m sure that when he was kind and generous it was because that felt good to him, and I’m sure that when he declined to meet with a dying friend he declined not for philosophically defensible reasons but because he found such a meeting unpleasant.
Now, I am not suggesting that Derek Parfit should be a role model for anyone. To judge from Edmonds’s biography, he was an exceptionally unpleasant man, though Edmonds treats him not as wicked but rather as profoundly strange. I am merely pointing out that, for all his fierce labor to identify and describe the objective roots of morality, Parfit’s own behavior was as inconsistent and unprincipled as yours and mine or the Effective Altruist next door.
I think what we should learn from all this is simply that one should have principles — ideally better ones than Derek Parfit had — but we should not be ashamed of the subjectivity inherent in them. I know people who care for abandoned dogs, and whose attention to those abandoned dogs makes them effectively, if not theoretically, indifferent to matters that many people believe to be much greater concern: what’s happening in Gaza, who the next President of the United States will be, global climate change, etc. I think that’s just fine. The world has so much more suffering than any of us could possibly address that any remediation, any limiting of harm and pain and suffering, is a good thing. And we are not wired in such a way that we can maintain our commitment to undoing or preventing harm that (for whatever reason) doesn’t really touch our hearts. We should not feel guilty for failing to think about — still less for failing to speak about — climate change when there is something else, some other suffering or violence right before us that we can to some degree ameliorate. That’s the human condition and we ought to embrace it. In enables us to leave the world in at least a slightly better condition than we found it.