In the Midst of Evil, Why Do So Many Stay Silent?

In light of the Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and all the other emerging scandals, many are asking, “Why do people stay silent in the face of evil?”

In a recent article, columnist Ben Shapiro answers it this way: The answer is almost always the same: they didn’t speak up — and we don’t speak up — because we’re seeking to protect something. Not someone — we often despise those we protect. Something. Something larger: a political or religious institution, a cause or piece of art. It’s easy to ignore abuses of individuals when we can minimize them as collateral damage in pursuit of a higher goal.

I agree, but I prefer to go deeper.

People stay silent in the face of evil because they hold false beliefs.

Two major examples of false beliefs:

“Who am I to judge? Maybe it’s just me.” But you can trust the evidence of your senses.

When I was in college, I attended a wedding in the extended family of a college friend. She warned me her extended family was dysfunctional. I soon found out how much. I remember noticing her uncle fondling the buttocks of his niece (who was probably about 16 or 17). I was stunned. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I did tell my friend soon after what I saw. Part of what stunned me was how it was done more or less out in the open. “What was that about?” I asked. My friend knew it was wrong and unhealthy but she also said, in essence, “Welcome to my world.”

It never occurred to me to question what I saw. But in the intervening years, working as a therapist, I came to understand that not everyone even possesses the confidence to allow themselves to know that what they’re seeing is real. It’s the lack of such confidence that abusers (of various types) cynically and desperately count on. It might not work forever, but it sure can work for a long time.

Another false belief: “Others will not believe me. And that will be a catastrophe.”

It’s a feeling, more than a statement, and I’m making the feeling into a statement here. The mere fact of others not believing you is not a catastrophe. If you have the confidence to trust in your senses, and to trust in your knowledge of basic right and wrong, then it’s not a problem when others do not believe you. If in their disbelief others take harmful or destructive action against you, that might be another story. But the mere fact of others disbelieving you is not a weakness. You don’t need others to believe you. You only need to be right. When you see sexual assault or other evil for what it is, you are in the right. What you do with that knowledge might require some skill and thinking, but if you’re right and others are wrong, that’s always a strength.

Again, it’s all a matter of confidence and self-esteem.

It’s hard to be a lone wolf, and it’s not always necessary. And I don’t mean to imply that anyone is obliged to be a self-sacrificial martyr or crusader. However, prolonged tragedies like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey or any of the other examples could not have happened unless the vast majority – virtually everyone involved – were willing to remain silent, in their own minds as well as with each other. Therein lies the problem. How do you think we got Nazi Germany?

Too many of us buy into the false idea that money and success, even when legitimately earned, are equivalent to physical power. But if that were true, Weinstein, Spacey and all the others would not be where they are now, which is in a heck of lot of trouble career-wise and even legally, possibly for the rest of their careers and lives. If they were invincible five or twenty years ago, then why are they not invincible now? What changed? There’s no simple answer. But it’s clear that a lot of people challenged and corrected their erroneous thinking. And that’s not only a healthy thing. It’s a moral thing, too.

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