Unlearning Not to Speak

“When a member of a congregation says to the preacher at the door of a church on a Sunday, ‘That was a first rate sermon,’ he or she is saying the preacher said all the things with which the person agreed, but only half as well.”-Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus

“Unlearning Not to Speak” was the title of a poem I read years ago, or maybe it was an essay.  Only the title remains in my memory.

I have been thinking about this title for the past few days.  I came across a number of articles, in quick succession, addressing the idea of how we have learned not to speak in situations in which we probably should.

The first was by Patricia Singleton writing on the blog Spiritual Journey of a Lightworker.   Her article was called “Fear— You Might Not Like Me if I Have An Opinion.

She writes from the perspective of a survivor of child abuse, but her words will probably have a familiar feel to anyone who has felt insecure or shy:

Remember the panic of being asked, “What do you think?”  I remember thinking what does this person want me to say? What am I going to say? Can I get away with not saying anything at all? Do I tell them what I really think and take the chance that the person might not like me? Do I take the chance that what I say could anger this person and make them hate me?

Not speaking is something we associate more strongly with women, and we females surely do have extra social pressure to keep the conversational peace by avoiding controversy and strong opinions. It is the feminine thing to do.

Yet men are not immune to these social forces.  They use a particular masculine variant on not speaking.  They may sound as though they are firmly stating a deeply held belief simply because they use a firm voice.  They may just as often be saying what they think they are expected to say as women are.  (For example, a man might have more social leeway to argue politics, but if he noticed that your bias cut skirt was a particularly fetching shade of mauve he might very well keep that observation to himself.)

In every day life we take an educated guess about what the other person expects from us, and we do our best to say appropriate things.  You would not talk to your football coach the same way as you would speak to your mother or your priest or to your best friend or spouse. You will probably keep mum on your deeply held democratic ideals around your republican cousin, as you might avoid talking about religion to your atheist friend.  These are the types of adjustments we make all the time to get along with one another.

It gets harder to know how “not to speak” as your audience becomes larger.  Your blog readers, your Facebook community, your Twitter followers may come from different backgrounds and different parts of your life.  When you can’t be sure who you are addressing, and you want everyone to like you, the easiest thing is to say things so uncontroversial that no one can take offense.

As Peter Gomes noted in the quote that led this article, the best way to get people to compliment you on your brilliant thoughts is to say what they are already thinking.

You can hardly go wrong, then, when you come out and argue that sunshine is nice, kindness is good, you like puppies, material things should not be the focus of life, and you’re trying to improve yourself so you can give back to the community.

You’re not going to make anyone flame you with that (unless he has a serious personality issue.)  The only problem is, if everyone already agrees with you, there isn’t much point in saying it.

The other problem with all this self-censoring is that we do not actually know what our friends and peers think.  We take educated guesses, and we are likely to be wrong.  Sometimes we end up on a mutually self-reinforcing loop in which we repeat what we think we need to say to stay in step with the other person who is only expressing a view because she thinks that is what you believe.

Yesterday, I posted a video that quotes Harry Knox citing two polls, one of clergy and the other of members of mainstream protestant congregations.  According to Knox, 2/3 of the church members were in favor of gay rights but didn’t want to come out and say it for fear of speaking against their church’s position, while 2/3 of the clergy said they personally favored equal rights for lgbt people, but they didn’t think their members were there yet.

Have you ever had one of those conversations with a group of friends about where to have dinner that went:  “Where do you want to go?”  “I don’t know, where do you want to go?”  “I’ll go wherever everyone wants to go?”…  To break that stalemate, someone needs to speak and risk being shot down.

Brian McClaren, the founder of Red Letter Christians, wrote a revealing article about his own process as a religious leader and how he unlearned not to speak in favor of lgbt equality.  He describes it as “coming out of the closet as a straight ally.”

When I became a pastor, more and more gay people came out to me and data started to accumulate that indicated problems with my inherited understanding. I went through a stage where I sought to be as personally understanding and humane to LGBTQ people as I could while still holding, however tenuously, to a theology that stigmatized them. (You might call this my “accepting but not affirming stage.”) I hurt some people deeply and inadvertently in this stage, and I wince when I think about it.

That led to a stage where I wanted to change my position – where I felt it was ethically and morally wrong to even tacitly support the conventional view. You might call this my “internally conflicted stage.” I wasn’t where I wanted to be and I didn’t know how to get from here to there…

I was a pastor and had to deal with the conflict between two commitments: first, one of my primary job requirements – to keep together rather than divide my congregation on the one hand, and second, to stand up with integrity and be counted as an advocate for people I had become convinced were being treated with neither justice nor compassion. I negotiated this tension by speaking up when I could and by seeking to use my influence to increase sensitivity to people whom I felt were being treated by Christians in a truly sub-Christian way.

But at every turn I felt that I couldn’t speak out too strongly too fast without dividing the church that I was called to serve. At times I probably pushed too far too fast – and got angry letters and emails about it, and at times I didn’t lead strongly enough – and got angry letters and emails about that too, just from other people.

You might ask why I didn’t go ahead and take a stand, letting the chips fall where they may. After all, I had inherited a conservative position on the role of women in church leadership, and our church crossed that boundary and never looked back. The honest answers to that question are complex and many (perhaps a subject for another time). Suffice it to say that the first few people who took a bold public stand paid the highest price, and the price, while still significant, has been going down steadily.

What we tend to discover when we share those scary ideas of ours is that, for the most part, people stick by us.   It is a cliche, but absolutely true, that any friends worth having are not going to pack up and leave because you disagree with them on an issue or two as you go through your life.  You probably have friends of your own who are totally different from you.  You say, “My friend is this crazy hippie,” or “My friend is kind of over-the-top about religion,” or “My friend is into all this New Age stuff,” or “My friend is obsessed with finding a man and I’m happy being single” or “He watches Fox News and I campaign for the Green Party…” You love them anyway.  (See my older post of a great quote from Joe Perez on this same subject.)

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got when I was in high school was from a teacher who told me never to end an essay with a quotation.  The last word, he said, should always be my own.  I should conclude my argument with my own voice.  Many years later (don’t ask how many, let’s just say a lot) I am still working on that.  It is a lifelong process, and important.  Who knows what words might touch another person and in what way?

The one thing I do know is that if that poem I found years ago had been worded in a more typical, conventional way (the one approved by grammarians) without its “inappropriate” double negative (“learning to speak” instead of “unlearning not to speak”) it would not have made an impact on me, and I would not be sharing it with you today.

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