“…but you’ll NEVER take my guns.”

A comment, said in passing. A handful of words that fellfreedoms echoing into my brain, shocking in their casual indifference to context and surroundings and simple human decency.

We walked and ran this morning in support of Newtown, Connecticut. Friends gathered, inspired by one of our own who grew up in Newtown and still has family and friends there. To the rest of the world, the memory fades as the months pass; collectively we have the memories of mayflies, it seems.

In Newtown, families and friends and neighbors still grieve for those lost on December 14, 2012. Twenty children between the ages of six and seven, six adults who worked at the school (teachers and administrators), all shot multiple times and killed. We gathered to honor them, and their families, and their community. We stand with them, and we do not forget.

I should mention now that this is not a post about gun violence. This is not a post about gun control. This is not a post about the Second Amendment.

This is not a post about freedom of speech.

This is a post about the freedom of silence.

I attended an event last week – an author’s signing of the book Civility in the Digital Age, and it struck me that the lack of civility online is leeching out into real life interactions, too. Like the one earlier today.

freedomofsilence

We were walking along, quietly talking. The group had split, so it was only two adults and three children and one wildly meandering dog trotting along a lakeside path. One of the children was holding a sign: “I <3 Newtown.” They were giggling and laughing and bumping into each other like little molecules, spinning off across the path in all directions and then pulling back together only to do it once again.

“I love Newtown.”

That’s it. The sign didn’t say “Down with all guns.” It didn’t say “Fight gun violence!” It didn’t say “Give up your guns now or you are evil.”

And yet a woman jogging by felt the need to blurt out, “I support Newtown, but you’ll NEVER take my guns.”

Why? Why would she feel the need to do that? Why would she think that it was right? Why would she feel that the friend walking with me – raised in Newtown – needed to hear that? That her CHILDREN needed to hear that?

We stood there, mouths open, shocked. Did we hear that? Did she say that? Why?

“It’s not about guns,” my friend called after her. “It’s about families!”

Thankfully the jogger’s response was lost in the chilly morning breeze, floating over the choppy lake to indifferent geese who would not take offense at her callousness. I suspect it was defensive and rude, a knee-jerk reaction to being questioned about her unsolicited beliefs.

A throwaway comment to her, but said out loud it had the power to open wounds and bruise hearts.

We are fortunate in our country to have the freedom of speech, but what we fail to consider is that there are times when the wiser course is silence. Hidden behind keyboards, typing under aliases or – somehow more horrifying – real names, people seem to think that freedom of speech means they can say anything. They don’t have to edit themselves. They don’t HAVE to filter. They can type it, hit send and *poof!* it’s gone! There are no repercussions, no consequences because it’s freedom of speech.

Only it’s not.

It’s the freedom to hurt, and to cause pain. It’s the freedom to NOT be willing to think before you speak. In some cases it’s the freedom to be charged with hate speech, or threats. Do you need to say something? Are you trying to change someone’s mind? Are you trying to help them understand a different perspective? Are you challenging the way they think? Are you correcting serious misinformation? Did they even ASK for a response? Fair enough, if you speak respectfully. More and more, though, I see people feeling like they HAVE TO SAY SOMETHING. Like staying quiet when you see a Facebook friend’s status update that you REALLY don’t agree with somehow implies agreement.

So let’s go ahead and clarify that: If you disagree with a friend’s status update and don’t comment on it, it doesn’t imply support.

Just yesterday, I watched people jumping into the fray over a status update. Feelings ran high. Comments got personal. Insults flew. I sat there, mildly stunned, thinking, “No one will ever change their way of thinking like this.” I could see people digging in their heels, refusing to budge. How does this help civil discourse? How does this help us learn from each other? How is this respectful?

Our communities are small – both online and offline. We are not faceless strangers behind keyboards, we are people. We have hopes, and dreams, and fears. We have good days, and bad days. We feel joy and sadness and confusion and weariness and pain. This slide into desensitization is hurting us all – each and every one of us. Each time we unthinkingly lash out at someone – we have no way of knowing the impact of our words. We don’t know what they’re going through, what haunts them, what battles they’re winning (or losing).

And so I ask: please think before you type in that angry retort, or post that vitriolic comment, or mutter something rude, or blurt out the first thing that comes into your mind just because you can. Consider why you’re doing it. And consider how you’re doing it.

It’s entirely possible to walk by a sign that says, “I love Newtown” and THINK to yourself, “Hmm, I support them but I don’t support increased gun control” WITHOUT saying it out loud. IN FRONT OF CHILDREN. You can wait a little while and then murmur it to a friend. You can call someone on your way home. You can decide to post it later on Facebook. You can decide to say nothing. You can choose to exercise your freedom of speech differently, in the hopes of creating a kinder world.

You can choose the freedom of silence.

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