“You have the right to remain silent . . .”

“You have the right to remain silent . . .”  So begins the Miranda warning, a text recited by arresting officers to make sure that an arrested person’s rights to avoid self-incrimination and to legal counsel are preserved.  By now we all know that George Floyd’s silence is absolute, not because he preserved his right to it, but because his greater rights to the pursuit of happiness, to liberty, and to life itself were taken from him by police violence. And today my Instagram feed, which is populated mostly by artists, museums and galleries, and people connected somehow with the arts, was filled with black squares hashtagged “blackouttuesday.”

It is against that background that I want to think about the idea, which now turns up everywhere, that silence, and especially white silence, amounts to violence against black people. Does a person, especially a white person, have a right to remain silent in the face of George Floyd’s death and the deaths of so many other black people at the hands of police? And if he or she does, are there good reasons for doing so?

We do not have a right to remain silent in all circumstances. We have, for example, a duty to warn a person in danger if that person is unaware of it, and if doing so would not cause greater harm. If I see the rattlesnake and my hiking companion doesn’t, I have an obligation to warn him before he steps on it, to help him if he does, and to warn other hikers about the danger. But in general, and under ordinary circumstances, we have a right to choose to say nothing.

That right is tangled up, I think, with another obligation and another right: our social obligation to say what we mean and our right to be free from coercion in ordinary life. If society is to function at all, we need to be confident that most of what people say, most of the time, is what they mean to say. We need to know that a shopkeeper who puts a price on an item intends to sell it for that price, or that a journalist reports what he saw as he understands it. Speech should not be coerced. We should not hold a gun to the shopkeeper’s head and make him agree to a 50% reduction in price, and the journalist should not take a bribe to falsify facts. A confession given under duress, as the Miranda warning suggests, has no validity. So if we are not to lose our right to be free of coercion and the confidence in others that ties society together, silence, like speech, needs to be protected and always an option.

Neither obligation to be sincere nor right to be free of coercion, though, quite matches the argument behind the “silence = violence” meme. That argument seems to be that by remaining silent, a person, especially a white person, becomes complicit in the institutional and personal racism that drives events like George Floyd’s murder. That is, the relevant example is the rattlesnake on the trail. Our fellow citizens of color are endangered by racism, as surely as an unwary hiker by a poisonous snake. We have an obligation to oppose that racism and to speak up in solidarity with our fellow citizens.

The problem, for me at least, comes when the second part of that obligation is understood as a move from individual obligation—supporting our fellow citizens who have been injured by the rattlesnake of racism and passing the alarm—to collective, condensed, uniform expressions. Unison speech is always messy, imprecise, and defective. Slogans aren’t arguments, although they may be more effective drivers of action, both good and bad. Cheers at football games, chants at political rallies, and hashtags on social media make it hard to be confident that most of the people uttering them mean what they say, and to know exactly how they understand the phrase if they do mean it. Cheers, chants, and hashtags, also, can easily become coercive. Just ask the guy who wore his Cowboys jersey to an Eagles game, or the painter who posted black paintings by Richard Serra instead of the required black square on Instagram.

All this is by way of offering a partial explanation of why I haven’t posted a black square on my Instagram account today. I can’t be confident that the image expresses what I intend to say, and I can’t be sure that I won’t be contributing to coercing speech from someone else. And the rattlesnake has moved down the trail.


~Lee T. Pearcy


Update June 3, 2020

I see from this morning’s New York Times that there are other, more urgent reasons for shying away from the black square and #blackouttuesday. As usual, no good deed goes unpunished. Our crooked human timber can do no good without also doing harm in some proportion.


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