On the Defamation of Love and the Politics of Silence

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

So they say.

Nice is agreeable. Nice is pleasant. But I must make it clear that nice is not love. It is not kindness. The opposite of of loving-kindness is cruelty and apathy; the opposite of niceness is disagreeableness and unpleasantness.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of me to insist on my son’s bedtime, despite his tears? He certainly didn’t think so.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of the enslaved men and women and the abolitionists to decry slavery as an affront to God, to revolt against the slavemasters? The slavemasters, who had the law on their side (after all, they’d written it themselves), didn’t think so.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of Jesus to flip the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, calling them “a den of thieves”? The moneylenders, who were also supported by law and tradition, certainly didn’t think so.

In each of those cases, the nice thing to do would have been to remain silent. There is nothing “nice” about telling a three-year-old in the midst of a temper tantrum to go ahead and get in bed now, even if you throw a “honey” on the end. There is no nice way to end slavery. There is no nice way to throw the moneylenders out of the temple.

But to be nice would have been a failure. It would have been a failure of nerve, of moral courage, certainly, but more than that, it would have been a failure to love.

Niceness is thin and brittle and empty, and when we constrain our definition of love to mere niceness, our love becomes thin and brittle and empty. Fragile, like thin ice. Perhaps you’ve experienced love that felt like that. This is love defamed, defanged, profaned. Its powerful core hollowed out and filled back up with sorrow and recrimination. True love is powerful. It is the ocean. It absorbs everything and bounces back. It will never fail.

So I can’t put too high a value on “niceness.” But silence is not always niceness, and it is not always a failure to love. We must ask ourselves: what lives in our silence?

I am a devotee of silence. I seek it out every day for a few minutes. Every week I seek it out for longer. I sit in it and just sit. Or I sit in it and listen for a still, small voice. Or I sit in it and absolutely revel in it.

And so I am also a connoisseur of silence. There is the noisy, clanging kind, where your mind feels like the inside of a cement truck full of nails. There is the itchy, twitchy kind, where your skin is nearly vibrating with discomfort and your mind darts around like a squirrel trying to hide an acorn. There is the sharp, heart-crushing, awkward kind, when you’ve just done or said something wrong, or you’re remembering it years later. There is the ringing pause before a kiss. There is the settling-dust silence at the end of a book. There is the angry, thunderstorm-building silence before an argument. And there is sometimes, if you catch it just right, the silence of the beginning and the end of the universe, the silence that is RIGHT NOW and you realize that silence is all there ever was.

And then there is the silence of omission. It feels like it is full of hot knives. When something is supposed to be said and isn’t. When you could show up with love and integrity and sit down instead. When you are ignoring injustice, pretending you can’t see pain. It’s how you feel when you turn away from a person begging on a street corner as if you didn’t see her sign, hear her calling out to you. It’s the feeling of failing to stand up for a little kid against a bully, even though you’re not much bigger.

That silence is called complicity.

Complicity hurts. We don’t like the feeling. We urge others to join us there. We silence and shame and shut down; we employ every fallacy and trick in the book to stop them from calling us out. As much as complicity hurts, being called out is much worse. It must be avoided at all costs. So our silence becomes a verb.

Silencing sounds like this:

“This is not the forum.”

“No use offending people. It’s not like you can change their minds.”

“Silly girl.”

“There are starving kids in ___. Your message just isn’t important.”

“You should really read more before you talk about a subject.”

“This conversation is over.”

And the classic, my favorite:

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Silencing looks like the unfollow button, the defriend button. It happens every time we choose to build out our filtered internet bubble. Bubbles of silence, floating above a sea of pain and need. Bubbles of careless complicity, turning away from love.

So what to do about it? I think you can tell from my vivid descriptions that I’ve experienced that hot-knives feeling. All I can do is recommit, once again, to fierce loving-kindness. To lean curiously toward the discomfort of candor and authenticity. To have a little more faith in the power and resilience of love. To be brave and shake off the lacquered golden shackles of complicity.

So this is what I’m saying when I say I will be loving and kind and honest. I’m not saying I will be agreeable or pleasant.

I’m not saying I will be nice.

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