The Freedom of Silence

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“…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.


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.



I firmly believe that every one of us has something to offer, and that each of us can make a difference in this world. I also believe that it’s vitally important that we not take ourselves too seriously, enjoy life, and have fun.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. RickRice

    This post keeps haunting me – in a good way – as I think about the lack of civility in so many parts of society today. You are really making me think. Thanks.

    1. mickeygomez

      RickRice High praise, indeed. I don’t claim to have any of the answers. My goal is to get people thinking and talking in the hopes that together we can come up with some ideas to make it better. It won’t be easy, but I absolutely think we can rise above it. If we care to, that is. And thank you, Rick.

  2. JenKaneCo

    This drove me nuts on the day the shooting happened. There was a ton of back channel discussions by marketers about, “What do we SAY?” “What should we DO?” And I kept saying, “Why do we have to say and do anything? We’re marketers not child safety experts, mental health professionals or gun enthusiasts. No one asked for our analysis. What’s wrong with just turning off the auto posts (which sadly, few did) and hugging our kids?” 
    Incomprehensible actions do not always require our immediate comprehension. Tragedies that make us speechless do not always require us to make a speech. Brutal acts that make us feel weak do not always require our strength. But people feel like they need to do all of those things anyway.

    It seems like just sitting and experiencing a feeling in silence has become the new “tree falls in the woods” riddle — if you have a feeling but don’t document it, did you really feel it?

    1. mickeygomez

      JenKaneCo “It seems like just sitting and experiencing a feeling in silence has become the new “tree falls in the woods” riddle — if you have a feeling but don’t document it, did you really feel it?” I LOVE this. It so perfectly illustrates an aspect of what I’m struggling to say. Thank you, Jen, for stopping by and adding your voice to the conversation.

  3. timesaver1

    It is interesting that you did not mention the anti-gun people that had their KIDS walking with signs that said “NRA kills our kids”.  Would you tell them the same thing as the pro-gun person?  So should the parents that have their kids walk around with these signs be silent too?  Or is it only for pro-gun supporters?  The funny thing is I am in complete support of your message, but yet again you only show your side, you do not show the issue with both sides.  That is why we fail…  Yes I said we, not YOU…we…

    1. bobledrew

      timesaver1 Know what the US needs: more polarizing dialogue. Thanks for doing your part, anonymous person.

    2. Liz

      timesaver1 So wait. You take a post that basically discusses the ignorance being thrown toward children who are walking in support of the poor children who died because a mentally unstable person had access to an unnecessary arsenal and impose a viewpoint that has absolutely nothing to do with the key point of the post and do so anonymously? Not only are you a coward hiding behind a keyboard and Obama’s face but you should actually take a note from Mickey’s book. There is appropriate. And there is inappropriate. You sir? Inappropriate. But besides that, the issue with the ‘pro’ gun’ lobby is sheer ignorance. No one wants to remove the right to own guns in this country. Instead, there is legislation geared towards banning assault weapons and perhaps, requiring registration and screening. And before you start citing the Second Amendment, please go back and actually read it. It refers to militias, not citizens.

      1. dough

        Liz timesaver1 
        I’d start with having him read the blog post first. From that comment, I’d say anonymous missed the point

    3. mickeygomez

      timesaver1I’m sorry that you seem to have missed – whether accidentally or intentionally – the point of my post. I specifically said it wasn’t meant to be political – I was using an incident that I personally witnessed to spotlight the issue of civility, or lack thereof. 
      I was also rather intentional about saying that I didn’t want to get into a debate about gun rights. This is not the place, and this is not the time. We were walking in support of a town that has gone through a lot. We were showing our appreciation of the people in that town who are living in the aftermath of tragedy. This was not a walk about politics, it was a walk about community, and family, and friendship. It was not a walk about pro- or anti-guns or gun rights. Not one person in our small group had signs that said anything other than, “We support Newtown” and “I love Newtown.” 
      In the example you raise, the signs themselves are incendiary. They compel discussion and debate through shock and a visceral reaction. I don’t agree with that tactic, either, but again that’s not the point of my post. 
      I didn’t say that people should not speak out for what they believe in. They are absolutely free to do that. My issue is that people don’t know when to simply stay silent out of respect for differing viewpoints. They have no filters. Their purpose is ONLY to argue, or to be “right” or to “win.” That doesn’t lead to productive conversations, ever.

      I also raised the issue of people who are willing to be brave only when hiding behind aliases. I will reply to your comment once, and that’s it. I am not comfortable engaging with people who aren’t willing to speak using their own name or image, especially when it comes to issues like politics. And I guess I’ll get to update my comment policy, as well.

      1. RickRice

        mickeygomez timesaver1 And that is a very civil response Mickey. I’m really tired of people hiding behind aliases to comment on blogs or anywhere. Off to update my comment policy too. 
        I have no problem with people disagreeing and actually enjoy a spirited conversation, but I do think it should be between people who are being upfront and honest about their identity.

        1. mickeygomez

          RickRice There are times and places when it might be appropriate to have an alias, to use a fake photo. I understand that (especially on the local level, when every step you take is fraught with balancing delicate relationships). That being said, this is not one of them. 
          This is the first post on the new blog. I’m moderating, but adding folks to an approved list to make comments un-moderated after the first passes muster. That’s the best I can do for now.

  4. buffybs

    It was such a startling odd moment on such an otherwise sweet and meaningful morning. Nicely said my friend,

    1. mickeygomez

      buffybs It was a lovely morning and a wonderful event, despite this. And thank you.

  5. maggielmcg

    Amen. I’m so sad I missed the book signing Thursday night because what I see online–thankfully, mostly online for me–truly worries me. People are so insistent on exercising their “right” to free speech…especially online, and even better, anonymously. The things I see said in Facebook comments, presumably among friends, are sad and scary, or, in a case like this week’s events around women in the tech space, outright evil. Thankfully, at least in my world, people keep the nastiness mostly online..but even better if the online trolls would heed your advice.

    1. mickeygomez

      maggielmcg, the book signing was excellent – Andrea definitely set the stage for the conversation, and my hope is that people will continue to talk about it. I don’t know if this message will ever find those who need it most, or if they’ll listen even if it does. But one can hope, surely?

  6. dough

    I must be lucky; I tend not to encounter this speech, but know it’s all around. I would hate to see the lack of civil boundaries the keyboard afford is break down our “real world” behavior. But then adjoin, loving in here iI noticed my LiveFyre password is based on some really obscene, hostile language. 
    Isuppose it’s a sense of humor the and ability to shut out the rest t gets me through

    1. mickeygomez

      dough You raise a good point – I think there’s definitely a balance between civil discourse and being offended by everything in the universe. Humor, to me, is a great way to make people think if it’s done well and approached with intelligence (I’m thinking of Jon Steward and Stephen Colbert). It can also diffuse tensions and serve as a release. But I also see people dismissing bad behavior or thoughtless remarks as, “I was just joking, lighten up!” Bottom line: no easy answer.

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