‘Speak No Evil’, or the Problem of Denial

The Soviet-era Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn famously urged his compatriots to wake up to the problems of their society with the phrase, “Live not by lies!” Acknowledging reality is rarely easy, and dealing with it even more difficult. This is true even in our free, Western democracies (though in our case the problem seems less ascribing to outright lies than being taken in by denial). But really it is the same issue: we prefer the comfort of untruth over the stretching and change that comes with acknowledging reality and the complexity of the world. Just think of how many people deny the mountain of scientific data that points to a rapidly warming globe rather than put their lifestyles or profit margins into question; or how many people to this day reject evolution because their faith is too limited to incorporate a more literary interpretation of Genesis 1-2.

This penchant for denial seems to be finding its way even into laws. Russia recently enacted legislation that essentially prohibits public discussion of homosexuality; Tennessee and Missouri (and probably many states behind them) are exploring legislation that would prohibit any discussion of sexual orientation in schools prior to the 8th grade.  Regardless of whether you ‘approve’ or not of homosexuality, these kinds of legislation will fail to resolve the ‘problem’ of homosexuality in these concerned communities for the simple fact that denying something doesn’t make it go away and certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

One of the biggest changes in our society over the past one hundred years has been its increased openness: there are fewer and fewer taboos about what people can and do talk about in the public arena. And yes, some might legitimately feel loss — loss of a ‘simpler time’ when right and wrong were as clear as night and day, of a sense of social cohesion or shared culture — but over all, this openness is a good and healthy thing.  Discussing rape was once taboo. As was discussing sexual abuse, incest, and domestic violence. These problems didn’t suddenly manifest themselves in the 1960s, but rather the cultural changes wrought in the second half of the last century empowered people to speak up. Millions of people have been able to talk about their hurts and traumas and receive help and treatment, and in the process have helped to shield others from the shame that went along with experiencing them. This is a very good thing. While we still have a long way to go, we have come a long way in casting aside the lies of “for the good of the family” or “for the good of the Church.”

And they are lies. Saving face is not the same thing as goodness. Allowing domestic violence or sexual abuse to continue while its victims suffer in silence is not “good for the family.” Shielding the Church from public ridicule while allowing known abuse (of various kinds — not just the ones that make the headlines) to continue is not “good for the Church.”

Yet even in our culture of openness too often people with the courage to call attention to real issues — whether abuse or marginalization or corporate malfeasance — are considered to be trouble-makers or whiners. In some cases, even when the Powers-That-Be recognize a problem exists, the rights and reputations of abusers continue to be functionally more important than the needs of those being harmed. This is appalling; why do we put with this? Certainly, for Christians at least, St. Paul’s injunction to “judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God” doesn’t help; But it seems to me he was talking about petty disagreements and issues of pride, not situations where people are being actively harmed. Just because there are always going to be wolves among the sheep doesn’t mean the wolves should have license to devour whomever and whatever they please.

I wish I had some rousing conclusion to these thoughts, but I don’t. I don’t necessarily think that mass protests public confrontations are the answer — contrary to Solzhenitsyn’s manifesto — but at the same time, it seems we need to draw a line in the sand and hold ourselves, our communities, our media, our governments accountable to reality. The first part of that — holding ourselves accountable — is probably the hardest. We all hide from truths about ourselves and our lives and yet I am the only person I can truly hold accountable. Again, reality is hard. Live not by lies….

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