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When Silence is a Form of Betrayal

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

For many of us, when we think of the word "betrayal," we think of a specific behaviour that someone has done that has harmed us in a particular way. They may have violated our sense of trust in them, they may have deceived us, they may have humiliated or shamed us, or they may have physically harmed us.

We think of it as an action that has been directed towards us. However, there is another form of betrayal that happens when someone’s behaviour is one of inaction. Of silence. The person is aware that something inappropriate or harmful has happened and they decide to remain silent.

There can be many reasons for our decisions to remain silent. For someone who is afraid of conflict, this may feel like a very safe and wise choice to make.

However, there are other times when we may decide to remain silent even though our personal safety is not at risk. Psychologically speaking, it may feel easier to walk away and say nothing.

The problem with this approach is that if we continually have a pattern of walking away or remaining silent about inappropriate behaviour, that behaviour may appear to be acceptable or even normalized.

One of my favourite classes at university was my Philosophy class and our professor challenged us on this very concept. I remember him saying to us that "no action is still an action." You have made a decision not to act, to remain silent. When this concept is presented to us in this way, we immediately realize that we are in fact responsible, for all our actions.

That phrase "no action is still an action" stayed with me over the years because I had often thought of staying silent as a way of keeping the peace. Yet to stay silent when I am witnessing harm is not an act of peace. Not when someone else’s trust or safety is being violated.

The image of the three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil is familiar to many of us. If we pretend that we don’t notice or have no knowledge of the harm that is occurring, we somehow feel less responsible for its existence.

We were also taught about the concept of being "morally consistent." If I am someone who says that I believe in the value of honesty, then it would follow that my actions would be to treat others in an honest manner. If I believe that all people have a right to safety, then my actions and behaviours need to reflect that.

In my previous article titled "Understanding the Meaning of our Exhaustion," I wrote about the importance of living our life in alignment with our values or our true nature.

So that is my personal goal for this year and beyond. To notice if my personal values and my actions are, as my professor would say, "morally consistent." I truly believe that for change to happen in our culture, we all need to take responsibility for making that happen.

I would like to end with a quote by Mahatma Gandhi: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Photograph by Hunter Leonard on Unsplash

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