Silence is complicity I: Reconsidering Henry Louis Gates

Jean Kazez made an important comment here, and it reminded me of something quoted in Maureen Dowd’s column:  Silence is complicity.  If we don’t speak out against racism, it is allowed to fester.  So what does this have to do with Henry Louis Gates?

Gates, as you will remember, “played the racism card” pretty quickly in his encounter with a Boston policeman.  I heard a number of comments against the police, including of course our President’s initial comments.  However, there has also a great deal of negative stuff/criticism of Gates.  The mildest was that he was jet lagged and just lost it.  Lots of people asserted that they had learned better than to do that, and Gates actions were foolish.  Indeed, they may be right to point out that such actions can cost one one’s life. 

So here’s this jet-lagged old  man losing control and doing stuff that no sane black person in control would do.  Or was it even worse?  Well, some people thought it was.  It just showed how above themselves and how out of touch these high-priced professors can get.  So we can add that onto the list of character problems.  And he  probably got private communication saying these sorts of things:

(a) Actions like yours set civil rights back.  You have damaged our people and behaved in a very immoral fashion. 

(b) You seem to think we are all just waiting for people like you to make some big show, but you are wrong.  Nobody is impressed by you at all.

(c)  You just want to get into the headlines.  Can’t you leave well enough alone?

This is the sort of thing friends can write.  So you can imagine what else was probably written. 

So he’s a cranky old man, arrogantly out of touch with reality, who stupidly risked his life and largely gets a storm of abuse.  What could he had been thinking of?

It seems to me possible that he has said to himself that  he has put up with experienced** over 70 years of racism and he just cannot be silence.  Perhaps he knows the  risks:  he does not really have that  much power, he may not be able to assess all situations correctly, he may be subject to a lot of criticism.  But he will not be silent and complicit.

Such thoughts might reflect an assessment of the moral quality of one’s life.  He might have thought:  I will not stand by silently, even if it kills  me.  My life  is not worth the cost of complicity.

Perhaps there’s something like an old person’s thinking going on here.  He has done wonderful things regarding race in the United States and he has conducted himself with great grace.  And he could feel that not enough has changed.  In his calling out racism, the point might not be to change much.  But it would mean that the acts of racism he experiences all get much less pleasant for their perpetrators.

Well, that’s all speculation about Henry Louis Gates, which is presumptuous surely.  But it raises the following question for us:  What if feminist philosophers, or at least some feminist philosophers, got cranky and stopped being silent or polite?  What would we do?  What if we just decided to make ignoring the plight of women in the profession much less easy and pleasant?  What could we do? 

If you want to think about this at all, you might reflect that activism has a very different dynamic.  People do not say “O what a good idea.  I guess I’ll change my mind!  Why I’ll just just share  power and it will be fun!”  And it’s time from might be very different, even if the final effects might be quite large.

Hope this makes sense.   What  do you think?   I’m not really advocating that  any try something analogous to PETA’s display posters (though now to think of it, I can imagine an insane  APA scene with what one says is  menstrual blood…never mind), but I’m wondering whether it would be beneficial to think outside our normal boxes a bit.  Perhaps the conclusion would be that there really isn’t any room for activism in academia.  Or we might think that in fact we are doing more than one might think.

**corrected in light of comment 2 below.

3 thoughts on “Silence is complicity I: Reconsidering Henry Louis Gates

  1. I’m very interested in the debate, but I find it very difficult to speak about the American context, with regard to anything. I think people need to speak out more, and for this to become an acceptable and absolutely normal thing to do.

  2. “It seems to me possible that he has said to himself that he has put up with over 70 years of racism and he just cannot be silence.”

    I wonder what evidence you have that this was Gates’s first outburst in 70 years of putting up with it. Perhaps he’s been doing it regularly and not attracting the attention this event did?

  3. Hamish, good question. My thought would have been better expressed by “experienced”. That’s important; I’ll change it and acknowledge your comment.

Comments are closed.