And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
Many of my contemporaries will recognise these words from “The sound of silence”, Paul Simon’s ode to silence and alienation.
2018 was when women’s whisper networks about sexual harassers not only became known but also turned up the volume to “scream”. It was also the time when whisper networks examined how their own silence could continue to enable perpetuation of harassment by shielding perpetrators.
“Fools,” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows”.
As names of the great and the good came tumbling out of the harassers’ closet, this was also a year when many questioned whom they could trust anyone after all. I had cause to question my own manifesto for the year with a theme of rebuilding trust. But I continued to operate from a place of implicit trust as I had intended, and it has enabled me to have conversations which benefited many spheres of my life.
My experiences through the year — at work, in social interactions, in sometimes fiery debates with male and female friends, and in the life quotidian — repeatedly made one thing clear.
The intent does not matter, the impact does.
What does that even mean?
Well, as an example, that you pinched a female colleague’s bottom because your intention was you were being friendly does not matter. That it made her feel violated and unsafe in the work environment — or an extension of it, say, at a team drinks event — matters.
Likewise, your making a racist comment does not matter but your dismissing it later as a joke does. It reveals that you do not care about people that are around you and only your own comfort matters to you.
Similarly, your making your workplace issues about your ego instead of what is good for the team and for the organisation matters less than what it reveals about your poor cognitive processes that do not stretch to understanding the impact of your actions and words on the workplace, the culture, the morale and the motivation of others.
“Why did s/he not complain?”, many ask in a tone deaf inquiry. People do complain but they are often not heard especially in power imbalanced situations. They often also pay a price for speaking up.
The trope continues how men are now afraid of women and avoiding women in the workplace. Articles advising men of “boundaries in the age of MeToo” are mushrooming, further fanning the idea that somehow speaking up about poor behaviour is a bad thing. (Just so we are clear it should not take a man or anyone in a position of relative power the fear of being called out as a harasser to observe boundaries.)
Between intent and impact lies accountability.
The accountability for having made the choice to act.
After all, we live in a complex world.
A world that is increasingly in disharmony with growing mistrust and lack of accountability.
None of us can thrive in such a world.
It is the job of every single one of us to be mindful of our intentions, our actions, and the impact of those actions on others. It needs us to have empathy for the other and some imagination for the possible outcomes before we act on our thoughts.
In other words, we need to be accountable.
2019 is my year of delivering and demanding accountability. From myself. And from others.
And that includes speaking up and speaking with one another more than we do.
Not let things wallow in silence.