On silence

Musings

I began thinking about what might happen after today and this is what I have to say.


When I was a small, tiny thing, growing up in an early 1980s, sheltered, aspirational, status-obsessed family, in an early 1980s, sheltered, aspirational, status-obsessed American suburb, I grew up as all such children do: in the backseat of a very large and prestigious American car.

The only world I knew was the one I could crane my neck to explore from those car windows, whether that was the obscenely short drive to school (maybe try and fucking walk, you fucking lazy shits) or those interminable tri-state drives to be presented to and scrutinised by distant family I only knew from greeting cards (what’s with the very ethnic doll of the Virgin under a plastic dome and why, for that matter, are you trying to dress me to go and have a meeting with her).

It was on one of those drives (backseat of the car, processed and artificial and flourescent car snack food, yacht rock radio on the airwaves) that I began to notice – I might have even still been in a booster seat – that there were some very strange stickers placed in very strange places, on lampposts and toll booths and spots that only someone who was consciously looking, not passing by or passing through, could hope to see as America passed by them.

Those stickers defined the landscape of early 1980s America as much as any poster of Ronnie and Nancy waving and smiling, even though people didn’t want to admit it then and still don’t want to now.

As I recall them, helped by Google, the stickers were black, and depicted a pink triangle upside down. Next to or around the pink triangle, the stickers said, in a stencilled font:

YOUR SILENCE
WILL NOT
PROTECT YOU

They hit me. They scared me. They confused me. They worried me.

They did exactly what they were meant to do.

It took me, the deliberately-spawned status symbol of the middle class American suburban lifestyle that I was, many, many years – well into adulthood – to understand what those stickers had meant.

It took me a good while longer than that to comprehend what those stickers had meant, beyond their factual explanations.

But my god, do I get it now.

And I’m so grateful to everyone who leaned out of car windows, wandered through toll stations, and walked on streets where there were no pavements, to smack those stickers where anyone who chose to see them could do so.

I’m grateful to them as a platitude, because most of those people would have been dead before I made it halfway through primary school.

Something awful happened today, and it happened to a public figure who sought no limelight and aspired to no status and craved no power and spent his career sitting contentedly in the back row being a good person committed to carrying out his civic duty for the good of his community.

In response to the something awful which happened today, calls will be made and desks will be smacked and doors will be slammed and demands will be shouted to make the world and the awful things that happen in it a little bit smaller and a little bit less visible and a little more controlled for the good of us all.

The pink and black sticker slaps itself in front of my face once again.

Your silence will not protect you.

I don’t claim to have any solutions to what happened this afternoon but I know that you don’t avenge the injustice inflicted on someone who chose to be silent by imposing silence onto others.

I don’t want that to happen, but life has taught me that it will.

I guess that’s because sitting on a plastic seat eating plastic food and having real life slapped into me by a plastic decal taught me that I will always be on the side of the people who crept into the night to put that sticker where a sheltered child could see it.

I guess that’s because the backseat of an American car is the most silent and isolated place in the world and in that sense, maybe, we were equals.

And I guess I’m on that side because I need to be because that’s where I belong.

I will never take the side of the people who contentedly drove past those warnings, and who still would, today, en route to their final and socially appropriate destination.

I will never take the side of the people who would use an alternative legal or societal justification – these people were engaged in civil disobedience, these people were inciting disorder – to invalidate the stickers or their message via another procedure.

And I will never, absolutely never, be “diplomatic” enough to sit alongside with the people who would appear in the morning with handled razors to scrape the stickers off, and would still do so today, whether those stickers were made of vinyl or of pixels, on the grounds that a wrong needed to be avenged as opposed to a lesson being learnt.

I’m so glad that I was given a chance to pick a side, and I’m so glad that I was given a chance to pick the right one.

I’d like to think that somewhere out there is a child in the backseat of a car, a literal one or a figurative one, who deserves that chance too.

I’d like to think that somewhere out there is someone whose future depends on that child picking her side.

Wherever you are, whether you know it now or not, whether you’re ready for it or not, whether you’re allowed to see the sticker or not, I got you.

And if you’re the one who needs to be silent, I got you too. Up to a point. I will carry you up until the point where I need you to clear your throat and unbuckle the belt and bypass the childproof lock like you damn well know how to do and unlock the door and open the door and get out of the car and start walking where you need to go and don’t you ever look back.

The Author

I advocate for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. I'm currently searching for my next tech policy role, and you should probably sort that.