[Note: This post started out as an answer on Quora]
Does silence mean consent? Sexually? No. Clearly not.
If you’re talking about Thomas More’s philosophy of qui tacet consentire videtur (he who is silent seems to consent), it’s…complicated.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, and even had a long discussion about it with my co-author Eunice a few weeks back. We fall on opposite sides of the issue, or perhaps on subtly different sides of one aspect of the issue.
Buckle up, bruh, this might get long.
When people say “silence equals consent,” they’re uuuuusually not talking about sex. When More said “qui tacet consentire videtur,” he was responding to a legal question about why he didn’t recognize the king’s dominion over the Church. His answer basically meant “I didn’t object to it, therefore I recognize it.”
In law and international relations, qui tacet consentire videtur means something more like “silence means assent.” That is, if you don’t object to a statement or decision or policy or treaty or something, that is functionally the same as if you had voted “yes” to it.
Okay. So. Here’s the thing:
The same idea often seems to apply in social settings, especially in subcommunities. You’ll see this play out when, for example, people say “if you’re conservative but you don’t speak out against the fascists in your party, you’re basically saying you’re one of them.” Or “if you’re Muslim but don’t speak out against the violent extremists among you, you’re basically saying you agree with them.” (Whichever way you personally may fall on the political spectrum, dear reader, it always feels less comfortable when it’s turned around, doesn’t it?)
Now, I’ve seen this happen in a subcommunity that I used to belong to. I get how it works.
The thing Eunice points out, and I agree with, is qui tacet consentire videtur only applies if it’s safe to speak dissent. If you risk being beheaded for publicly saying that the king does not rightfully have dominion over the church, then keeping your mouth shut is not automatically assent.
The place we differ is whether or not remaining silent in the face of immorality is a morally defensible act.
Now I get it, I really do. If you live under the Taliban’s rule and you’re Muslim, you maybe might want to think twice about raising your voice in objection to extremism, or you and your family are at very real risk.
Where I think things get muddier is when you’re not at risk of having your head separated from your shoulders, but rather you don’t speak your dissent because you’re worried it will cost you social standing. Or friends. Or your position in your community. You know, something that’s not your life or your freedom.
Where Eunice and I differ is she’s way more patient than I am with people who don’t speak out about things they sincerely believe are wrong when doing so may cost something.
She believes, if I may take the liberty of stating her position as I understand it, that we all have the right to set for ourselves our own personal level of acceptable risk, and what we are willing to put on the line for our values. It is not necessarily wrong to decide the consequences for speaking dissent are more than we are willing to pay.
I’m a lot more hardline about it. I believe that, to quote Jon Stewart:
If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values, they’re hobbies.
If you make your values a part of your identity, but fail to express them whenever they might cost you something, then yes, your silence, functionally, does mean assent.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. The problem is, evil can make it expensive enough that nobody wants to be the first one to do something.
It’s like a criminal holding 30 hostages with a six-shot revolver. If everyone stood up, they’d win. But the first one to stand up is getting shot, so nobody wants to be the first one to stand up, so everyone meekly complies with the criminal and allows him to tie them up, so now he can kill all 30 at his leisure.
There’s actually a scene in a Marvel movie, of all things, that nicely illustrates the dilemma of qui tacet consentire videtur:
At what cost our dissent? Most of us would like to look in the mirror and tell ourselves we are like this man. Almost nobody actually is. I’ll bet folding money that most people will keep silent in the face of things they are think are wrong even if the cost of speaking up is quite small.
When I posted this on Quora, a friend remarked that in his opinion, Eunice’s position shows greater empathy than mine; that is, Eunice is less hard-line than I am because she’s more sensitive to the plight of the person placed in the position of not being able to speak up without facing the community’s retaliation.
I chewed on that idea for weeks. I had a sense that there was something missing from that idea, but it took me a while to put my finger on what it was.
In situations where, for example, someone is in the closet as a member of some sexual or ethnic morality for fear of the community’s reaction if he comes out, I agree. That’s absolutely a reasonable choice, and deserves respect and compassion. In fact, I’ve chosen to live openly, as I’ve said in my memoir and also at events back as far as the 90s, in part because I can. I’ve never had a job that would be at risk because someone finds out I’m polyamorous, or family that would disown me.
In that sense, I’m privileged, and I know it, and it’s because I’m privileged I want to do whatever I can to make it easier for the next person to be open.
Image: Adrian Swancar
What I’m talking about here is slightly different from being in the closet, though. This answer is more about being silent in the face of things you know to be wrong—not silence in the sense of “I am silent about my own sexual orientation because I am worried people will harm me,” but in the sense of “I see people like me harming those who come out of the closet, and I’m silent about that because I don’t want those people to attack me too.” I do think those are two different situations, and in the latter, being silent to the bigotry of others does serve as assent to their bigotry.
If I as a straight person don’t stand up to homophobia, am I complicit in it? If I as a man don’t stand up to misogyny, am I complicit in it? I personally think the answer is yes.
The part about empathy is what triggered that realization, because it’s precisely empathy that makes me draw that bright line. I think that it’s easy to have empathy for the straight person who doesn’t stand up to the homophobe, because most of us identify with that person and it’s easiest to have empathy for those who are like us.
But the person who most needs empathy isn’t the straight person too scared to speak up, but the gay person being targeted in the first place.
Yes, it’s important to have empathy for the straight person who’s worried about being targeted by the bigots, because yes, bigots can and do come after those on the “side” of the disfavored group—look at, for example, American white nationalists who target Black people but also target “race traitors” they perceive as siding with Black people against their own race.
But in that particular case, who do we empathize with more? Who drives our compassion: the white person who is afraid of being branded a “race traitor” and harassed by the white nationalists, or the Black person at the receiving end of their hate?
I see that bright line not because I don’t empathize with the white guy who doesn’t want to draw attention to himself from the bigot, but because I do empathize with the person who has to live with that bigotry when nobody is willing to speak up.