Next Monday, January 24, approximately 200,000 Americans will march through our nation’s capital to affirm their respect for human life from conception to natural death and to mark the anniversary of the notorious Roe v. Wade decision. As we watch this bold and public defense of basic human rights, it is worth recalling that it stands in stark contrast to a culture of silence that continues to prevail throughout much of the country, perhaps nowhere more than on college campuses.
Today, when college professors want to criticize abortion or to mention their support for traditional marriage, they look around furtively to see if anyone is nearby, then express their opinions in very low tones. I have literally seen people whisper and close the doors when they speak about these issues. I did the same until very recently, but I’ve become convinced that doing so not only deprives the campus of ideas that it needs to hear but also damages our souls through a perverse species of pride.
As unhealthy as this sort of pride is, I’d like to point us to a different and more insidious pride, the version that keeps us quiet. Because we live in a culture that has turned away from much that is good and right and that advocates much that is superficial, if not downright evil, we face a constant tension between our beliefs and our surroundings. We all desire to fit in and to enjoy the esteem of our families, friends, and colleagues. We therefore worry about seeming odd or backward. In the end, we often stay quiet when we know we should speak, at least in part because we’re concerned about our images.
Isn’t this an odd sort of situation? We conceal what we really believe so that people will think more highly of us than they would if we were honest. In other words, we want them to think well of us for reasons that, in our heart of hearts, we utterly reject. We want our colleagues to esteem us for being conservatives—it’s almost impossible to keep our basic orientation towards politics and morality hidden—who aren’t as “extreme” as the ones they look down upon. In some cases we may have exactly those “extreme” views that they reject, for example believing that marriage is necessarily between a man and a woman, but we want to enjoy the esteem awarded to those without this conviction. If we see traditional marriage as the foundation of society, why do we rejoice in the appreciation of those attempting to undermine that foundation? If we shudder at the thought of receiving an award from Planned Parenthood, why would we want to receive the “award” of public approval for being seen as “moderate” on abortion?
This quiet form of pride is more dangerous than the loud version specifically because it lacks the loud version’s negative public consequences. When we publicly look down on others, they detect our attitude and respond in anger or avoidance. We can’t act like that for long without receiving the kind of painful responses that make us reevaluate our actions and attitudes. On the other hand, the quiet pride of protecting one’s image through silence has dangerously seductive results. People respond with approval and affirmation. “He isn’t so bad,” they say. “He might be a conservative but he’s not like Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh.” We take pleasure in this kind of response, and can begin to think of ourselves as “nuanced,” unlike the typical dull and dogmatic conservative.
What has just happened, though? We’ve been affirmed for being silent on important issues on which we do have strong beliefs. We’ve then taken pride in our supposed sophistication. The reality, of course, is that our silence usually has little to do with nuance and sophistication and more to do with appearance.
There are, of course, many issues on which there’s no imperative for us to speak up. Many issues in life are truly debatable. Neither the proper tax rate nor the exact role of the national government, for instance, can be deduced directly from nature. It’s not obvious how large the national government should be or what kind of benefits should be included in a university health plan. These issues are both easier to discuss and less important to discuss, because there is a spectrum of arrangements that are morally acceptable. We can and should participate in discussions of these issues, but in most cases we can live with all of the options under discussion. Conversely, though, the issues of marriage and abortion are both more important and more difficult to talk about. Because abortion is a matter of life and death and because the family that stems from traditional marriage is the central institution in society, these issues demand our active participation to a degree far beyond tax policy or recycling.
Unfortunately, the pride that tempts us to shy away from the issues most in need of our attention is a character killer. Those who choose repeatedly to stay silent when they know they should speak succumb to pride not once but twice. It is pride that keeps them silent in the first place and pride that grows when they justify their silence. Silence has negative consequences on our universities and our culture, but its effect on our own souls is even more profound.
Todd Hartch is Associate Professor of History at Eastern Kentucky University.