Is silence consent? Virtue vs. virtue signalling

Yesterday, I tussled with some friends over the issue of “virtue signalling.”

In the immediate aftermath of the hideous events in Charlottesville, my social media was flooded with friends passionately denouncing racism and white supremacism. Some of the denunciations included an exhortation for all decent folk to do the same: You must speak up. You must take a stand. You must say something. Silence is consent.

Then followed a wave of irritable scoffers who refused to join in the mass denunciation. Their arguments were pretty solid: Of course we reject racism. Of course we’re anti-Nazi. It doesn’t do any good to say so on social media. The only reason you’d do so is to get your social piety card punched, and that’s just cheap and gross. Tomorrow it’ll be another thing that we’re all required to say. Who can keep up? Let’s just talk about what interests us, and refuse to be pushed around by a mob, even if the mob is correct.

Let’s untangle this a bit.

There are most certainly some folks who latch on to every cause, and their passion never rises above virtue signalling. They never act, but they never stop patting themselves on the back for saying the right thing when it’s popular to say it (and somehow, they never feel the urge to speak up when their cause is unpopular). One day, they’re slapping a flag overlay on their profile picture; the next day, they’re wearing safety pins; the next, they’re insisting that everyone stop what they’re doing and sign a useless change.org petition. And that’s all they do. They endlessly congratulate themselves as they flit from one cause to the next, from passion to passion, never seeming to notice that they stopped talking about yesterday’s all-consuming cause as soon as the hashtag stopped trending.

This is pure virtue signalling, and it’s gross. It changes nothing, it means nothing, and it’s actually counterproductive, as it relieves us from truly thinking, engaging, and acting. It’s the ultimate participation trophy: Hooray, you had the courage to be on Twitter and retweet something popular! Go put your feet up, you warrior, you.

So, phooey on this.

There is, however, another large group of people who were saying things very similar to what the virtue signallers were saying: I reject racism. I denounce Nazis. They don’t belong here; they don’t speak for me. America is better than this.

These folks felt like that had to say something, because they were confronted with something so monstrous and incomprehensible, they could not be silent. They wanted to do something, and there was nothing to be done — nothing but saying something. So they said something.

This isn’t virtue signalling. This is the normal, healthy response of a human being who feels appropriate sorrow, appropriate outrage toward aggressors, and appropriate compassion toward victims. It would be best, and truly virtuous, to follow up a public statement with some kind of action —  praying, perhaps, or getting more involved in local politics, or sending a note to someone who identifies with the victim. But there’s nothing inherently odious or insincere about responding to evil with a loud, public “Hell, no.”

I have heard from people who identify with the victims — from people raising black kids, for instance — that it gives them great comfort to hear a crowd of people loudly defending them. It would hurt, and be frightening, not to hear it. That in itself is good reason to speak up.

I have also heard from people who’ve said, “I have been too timid to speak up in the past. I’ve let racist jokes slide, and I’ve let insults go unchallenged. Now I see where silence leads, and I’m not going to be silent anymore.” This isn’t posturing; this is conversion of heart. Not virtue signalling, but a sign of actual virtue.

Mere words aren’t always empty, even if they’re popular words.

But what about the claim that silence is consent? This is more complicated. We have heard over and over that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. If an individual is silent, that may not mean that he consents to evil, but if every single individual decides that he’s going to sit this one out because everyone already knows that racism is bad . . . well, if that worked, we’d have a lot fewer names to remember on Memorial Day. And Holocaust Remembrance Day. And so on. If everyone is silent except the ones chanting, “Sieg heil,” then yes, silence is consent.

At the same time, when everyone is shouting at the same time, very little gets heard. When the crowd is screaming at you to start screaming, too, it’s hard to think, and impossible to say something more nuanced than “HELL NO.” And sometimes we expend all our energy in screaming, and then it’s hard to feel we have to do something else, such as actually doing something.

So, sometimes thoughtful, reasonable, courageous people don’t say anything in public. This doesn’t mean they’re cowards, and it doesn’t mean they’re complicit. It doesn’t mean they’re privately rooting for evil.

At the same time, sometimes thoughtful, reasonable, courageous people feel like they cannot be silent in public. This doesn’t mean they are smug, shallow, social justice warriors who are only in it for the applause.

If it’s wrong to demand that Every0ne Use the Hashtag Now Or Else You Are the Problem, it’s also wrong to demand that Everyone Shut Up Because We Know Why You’re Flapping Your Useless SJW Lips. We would all do well to give each other a little clearance when something horrible happens. People respond differently to trauma. This is a feature of social discourse, not a bug.

When we demand unanimity — either of speech or of silence — we’re making ourselves weaker, not stronger. When everyone is saying (or refusing to say) the same thing, we’re like a flock of cloned sheep: A single superbug can take us all out, bam.

Of course, all of the above applies to private people. But if it’s your job to speak out, like if you’re the president of the United States, then you have a clear obligation to condemn specific evil acts and specific evil groups, and silence or vagueness is rightly construed as consent. Damn.

But for the rest of us? You could always just split the difference and let your sousaphone do the talking.

God bless the sousaphone man. More like him, please. And more wiggle room for each other, please, as we hash out our response to the intolerable.

Don’t you realize comedy is a matter of life and death?

In honor of Mel Brooks’ 91st birthday, I’m re-posting this essay (slightly modified) from 2015. Mazel tov, Mel, and thanks for everything.

***

In 2015, one Jeffrey Imm organized an angry protest against the production of Mel Brooks’ The ProducersImm’s complaint was that the show makes fun of Nazis, and therefore doesn’t pay proper respect to the horrors of the Holocaust.  As Walter Hudson points out in PJ Media, “The irony of protesting fascism with a blanket declaration of what can’t be laughed at appears to be lost on Mr. Imm.”

It’s not really worth arguing beyond that. If you’re a soldier, you use a gun to fight evil. If you’re a writer, you use words. If you’re a comedian, you use jokes. Especially if you’re a Jew. That’s how it works.

Spaceballs, Men in Tights, and Dracula are unwatchable. The problem with these movies is that Brooks tried to skewer genres that he didn’t especially care about; whereas his funniest movies (including High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles) target something he loves and admires. And that’s where Mel Brooks really shines: when he’s in love. And this is a man who is in love with life.

His exuberantly ridiculous jokes catch you up in his love of life, dick jokes and all. The jokes that “make sense” aren’t what make the non sequiturs and the fart jokes forgivable; they’re all part of the same sensibility.

Life is funny. Even when it’s awful (what with racism, and Nazis, and murder, and stuff like that), it’s kind of funny. Especially when it’s awful. Especially when you’re suffering.

In The Producers, Brooks isn’t just “making fun of Hitler.” At the risk of over-analyzing humor, Brooks doesn’t just tease Hitler; he robs him of his power. He subsumes him.

This is obvious in The Producers, as Brooks deftly works the play-within-a-play angle, telling the world: this is how you do it. When you are a comedian, you make people laugh, and that is how you win.  People gotta do what they gotta do (and that’s why Max Bialystock won’t ever learn).

We’re all producers, and the worst mistake we can make is the one  Bialystock and Bloom made: when we don’t realize what kind of show we’re putting on.  In Brooks’ best films, he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s producing, and his glorious openness is what makes them so disarming. It’s what makes us laugh at things we don’t want to laugh at; and laughing at those things is what robs them of their power.

An even better example of how Brooks annihilates the enemy without losing his soul is in the somewhat underrated To Be Or Not to Be, where Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft play a pair of two-bit entertainers (“world famous in Poland”) who bumble into a plot to rescue a bunch of Jews from occupied Poland.

The movie is not great, but one scene makes up for everything else. The incompetent theater crew is trapped in a darkened auditorium full of Nazis, and the only way to shepherd the crowd of Jews out of town is (work with me here) to dress them up as clowns and parade them out of the theater right under the enemy’s noses. Against all odds, it’s actually working, and the Nazis are deceived — until one poor old babushka, her face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. It’s too much for her: so many swastikas, so many guns. She can’t make herself do it, she’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.

They’re just about to uncover the whole plot, when the quick-thinking leader of the troupe looks the Nazis straight in the eye and shouts merrily, “JUDEN!” He slaps a Star of David on the old woman’s chest, takes out a clown gun, and shoots her in the head. POW.

And that’s what saves her. That’s what saves them all. The crowd roars with laughter and keeps their seats while the whole company flees. Juden 1, Hitler 0.

The same thing happened to me. Again, work with me, here!

Depression and despair have been my companions ever since I can remember. Most of the time, if I keep busy and healthy, I have the upper hand; but one day, several years ago, I did not. The only thing that seemed reasonable one day was to kill myself, and that was all I could think about. The longer it went on, the less escape there seemed to be. I was trapped, and there was too much darkness. I couldn’t pass through it.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t kill myself. I’m still here. There are many reasons for this; but one stands out in my mind, because it’s so stupid. Out of nowhere, I suddenly thought of that scene in Brooks’ 1970 film The Twelve Chairs. I barely remember this movie (we try not to have a lot of Dom DeLuise in our house, out of respect for my husband)  but the plot was some ridiculous, convoluted story of someone trying to do some simple thing, and his situation just gets worse and worse. At one point, everything has come crashing down around the hero’s ears, and there is no hope.

So what does he do? He responds by running around in circles on the beach and screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LIVE. I DON’T WANNA LIVE.” And that’s the line that popped into my head.

So guess what? I laughed. Just a little giggle, but it helped. It was a little shaft of light, and it helped. I still had to pass through the dark room full of the enemy who wanted me dead, but someone who was on my side had slapped a Star of David on my chest, made me a target — and once I was explicitly made into a target, I could survive. It was all a joke. It was a circus, and I knew I would survive.

Suddenly I knew what kind of show I was in. It was a comedy, not a tragedy after all, and I was going to make it out of that dark room.

I don’t know how else to explain it beyond that. Mel Brooks saved my life, fart jokes and all. “I don’t want to live, I don’t want to live!” made me want to live, a little bit. That’s what kind of movies he makes.

Everyday martyrdom for the weak and afraid

If you have ever looked in the mirror and thought with shame and distress that you could never die for your faith, think again. Life in Christ is a life of a thousand, million little deaths: deaths to old ways of thinking, death to false security, death to complacency, death to trivial comforts. Any time you inquire about your Faith, you are whispering to Christ, however reluctantly, that you are open to killing off some part of yourself that does not deserve to live.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

Photo: By nieznany – Polish Righteous awarded with medals for bravery by the Holocaust Remembrance Authority. Cropped and color managed by Poeticbent (dyskusja · edycje), Domena publiczna, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7130230