Speak up

Life is everyone’s business. Standing up and expressing your feelings is best.

December 26, 2016 11:40 am | Updated November 11, 2017 03:28 pm IST

When I read or hear about student protests, I’m haunted by a single exhibit I saw in a museum in San Francisco which has a whole section on the development of the railway that linked the continent, coast to coast. Naturally, it was an important arm of growth and individual discomforts were set aside for what was surely a greater goal — connectivity for trade and travel.

In 1889, when she was just 19 years old, Modesta Avila fought the Santa Fe Railroad’s extension of its main line through her mother’s property. In protest, she strung her laundry across the tracks and was arrested on a charge of “attempted obstruction of a train.”

My heart stopped. This girl would have been in college. She knew she would lose but that did not deter her. And what of her family? What might their response have been? Her friends? Did they try to dissuade her? Avila was sentenced to three years in the women’s wing of the San Quentin State Prison where she became ill and died two years later, at the age of 22. The poster-cum-exhibit shows a typical police visual of a criminal. Painted across the black-and-white photograph is the serial number 13,793, and the record says, “M. Avila. Felony.”

In schools, colleges, offices and at home, how often do we stay silent because, speaking up would cause an uproar? Perhaps, a big factor is knowing when to assert yourself, either on your own behalf or on behalf of someone else. Despite the risks, here are a few reasons why standing up and expressing your feelings is best. One, silence is often seen to be a sign of approval. You could be seen as collaborating with a situation. Two, it is selfish to take care of your own comfort and allow the wrong thing to happen. “Let’s wait and watch” is a poor response when you know something bad might be averted if someone important heard the truth from you. Three, honesty is a virtue which is in short supply. With it goes trust, especially when combined with tact and sensitivity. It is crucial to demonstrate that you are not afraid to speak the truth. Four, sharing and communicating is a sign of confidence. No one else may know precisely what you do. So, your contribution might make a small difference to adjusting the big picture to everyone’s benefit. Never withhold information. Lastly, when you speak up, it will almost certainly encourage others to do so too. Group silence, when everyone knows something wrong is being done, is as great an offence as a single person doing the wrong thing.

The next time you are face-to-face with something that, either through ignorance or lack of information, is hurting someone or a process — speak up! You have a duty to yourself and to your friends, family and colleagues to right a wrong by registering your protest. It might be loud music in the neighbourhood which disturbs everyone, particularly infants and the elderly. It might be harassment of a domestic worker which you witness but hesitate to challenge, believing it is none of your business. It might be injustice or dishonesty which goes unchecked because no one thought it was his or her business. Speak up! Life is everyone’s business.

The writer is publishing consultant, Oxford University Press.

Email: minioup@gmail.com

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