D.C. protest against Israel bombing Gaza

Protesters demonstrate against the Israeli military bombardment of Gaza in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. on October 20, 2023.

(Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

On Safety, Comfort, and the Importance of Speaking Out

We need to make those who are abusing their power uncomfortable. And we need to out-organize them to take away their power to destroy the fabric of our society.

Approximately 1,200 human souls were killed in Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel on Oct 7.

Since that date 30,000 human souls have been massacred by the Israeli Military
with bombs paid for by the United States in Gaza.

Hate crimes are increasing against Jews and against Muslims.

The climate crisis is putting millions of people’s lives at risk.

There are wars raging in many countries.

Democracy is in peril in the U.S. and in many other places.

We are living in a time where many of our colleagues in the human community
do not feel safe because they are deeply and physically unsafe.

Right now all around this country students are being doxed and losing 
opportunities for jobs because well-funded organizations are keeping lists of
those who speak out against the U.S.-funded Israeli war machine. Teachers who
 speak out are losing their jobs, and even powerful and prominent people, such as 
the former president of Harvard Claudine Gay, are losing their jobs.

And yet there is a rhetoric around the idea of safety that is counterproductive to 
building a world in which we can all be truly safe.

On my campus, I helped organize a teach-in on the Israel/Gaza war and the 
speakers came from a humanistic perspective that honored the tragedy of lives 
lost on both sides and which dug into the history and politics of the present
 moment. I was worried that hecklers would show up, and my colleagues asked 
that there be campus police presence. We specifically offered for those posing 
questions to write them on paper so they wouldn’t need to be
 identified publicly.

But I was told that because our teach-in was sponsored by Jewish Voice for 
Peace, an organization dedicated to Palestinian rights and an end to the Israeli
 occupation of Palestinian territories, some Jewish students on our campus didn’t 
feel safe attending.

Many of us live inside bubbles with people who agree with our positions and when
 something changes to bring us face-to-face with views that disrupt what we have 
come to accept as common sense, we can find that experience destabilizing.

Many of us feel silenced by worries that our speech might be met with
 disagreement. We are in a period of increasing self-censorship where people
 don’t say what they think is important or true because they are afraid of the social
 consequences—even in cases where those consequences are likely to be quite 
small. And yet, taking the risk to be honest and to speak out often puts us in
 more right alignment with the people around us. Speaking truths often
 strengthens our relationships by making them more authentic.

The dictionary definition of the word "safety" centers on being free from danger. 
Much of the current discussion of unsafety is really about discomfort. And 
discomfort is something we should generally lean into. We should reserve the
 word "safety" for situations where we are in danger of something more than a
destabilization of our worldviews.

Social Media and Canceling

A lot of people’s sense that it is unsafe to engage in political dialogue comes
from the kinds of bad behavior that are routine on social media where people
make comments about social and political things and they are then flamed and
sometimes “canceled.”

It is important to remember that Facebook and X function exquisitely as profit-making advertising platforms. People’s outrage is the fuel that drives those 
profits. The platforms are optimized for outrage. It isn’t surprising that people
 attack one another there. Those attacks fuel attention. People gain clout by how 
many followers they have and they gain followers by drawing more eyeballs to 
their posts.

Cancel culture is a practice in social media where people flame each 
other for clout. Algorithms foster outrage to keep people engaged. Weirdly, 
social media is such a toxic place precisely because there is generally no real
 danger there. The personal and real-life stakes are often so low that people feel
 that they can say anything.
There is no point trying to figure out how to have productive humanistic and civil 
conversations on social media. The algorithms don't allow it. A better strategy 

might be to avoid commercial social media altogether. We should avoid feeding
 the trolls. If you are concerned about the toxic nature of social media, rather than
jumping into that fray, it is likely to be more productive to work actively for policies
to break the monopolies and allow for the proliferation of non-profit forms of
social media.

Your silence will not protect you

We are living in dangerous times. And It might be tempting in the face of those
real attacks to retreat into the comfort of silence. One of the most profound
lessons of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War 2
was that the community’s silence did not protect it.

We can’t expect, in a period of extreme instability and a rising fascist movement
in our country, to feel safe all the time. Living ethically in times of crisis requires 
that at least some of us take risks, and of course the more of us who take risks to 
speak out and work for justice, the safer we all are. As the great African-
American poet and essayist Audre Lourde said: “Your silence will not protect

And while this is a time for speaking out and for bravery, that doesn't mean that 
our words need to be fighting words. A dangerous and consequential time is also a time for being strategic, for thinking about the most effective ways to speak and
 to act in relation to the dangers we face.

It is generally a good idea when speaking with people to follow the basic rules of
 effective civil communication:

We should avoid attacking people;
We should practice humility and openness;
In our communications we should try to get to underlying shared values; and
We should remember that as we speak in ways that challenge dominant 
narratives some people will feel destabilized.

But no amount of civil dialogue will stop the forces that are fighting to maintain
 social power at the expense of the rest of us.

Long before Trump came onto the political scene, Republican legislators had 
stopped engaging in political compromise. It was very disheartening that the 

response of liberals was often to wring their hands and call for more civil
 dialogue. Being civil with those who are bent on your destruction is like bringing a 
knife to a gunfight.

Fighting against the rising forces of fascism in this country does not require us to 
be routinely uncivil, but it does require much more of us than civility. 
We engage in significant social change when we pressure political systems to 

We need to step outside of our comfort zones to do that.

We need to make those who are abusing their power uncomfortable. And we
 need to out-organize them to take away their power to destroy the fabric
 of our society.

That involves mobilizing social resources to shut down the abuses of power that
 exist in a wide variety of forms.

Our silence will not protect us, and neither will our civility.

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