(This column first ran in the Press-Republican in January, 1998. The cartoon is by John Sherrfius of the Boulder Daily Camera.)
The Myth of the Silent Majority
As noted in last Monday's Lookback, the treaty that removed the last U.S. troops from Vietnam a quarter-century ago coincided with the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
The country had simply exchanged one set of demonstrators for another. And it definitely was a change.
While some individuals went from protesting death in Southeast Asia to protesting death in abortion clinics, the two movements represent fundamentally different sides of the political divide, each going against traditional definitions:
Classical liberalism tries to reach positive social goals by forcing people to do things they might not otherwise do, but the strength of the antiwar protests came from those who believed in individual rights. For all the talk of treaty violations, bombing raids and political self-determination in Vietnam, the reason the streets were full was because a lot of young men objected to being drafted for a distant war in which they felt no personal interest.
And, although classic conservativism strives to free individuals from government control, the crusade against abortion gains its strength from those who want a strong central government to make individuals live according to moral positions they may not accept.
Of course, you don't find political philosophers chanting in the streets. Those who carry the placards tend to be ruled by passion, not logic, and you can't tell the fascists from the anarchists without a scorecard.
For all their differences, however, the protestors have something important in common: The guts to stand up for what they believe in.
By contrast, the majority of people sat on their hands through the American Revolution, they sat on their hands while slavery was debated, they sat on their hands until Pearl Harbor forced us to confront the Axis, they sat on their hands while black people were assaulted by firehoses and police dogs in the struggle for civil rights, and they sat on their hands throughout the Vietnam War just as they are sitting on their hands now, through the abortion debate.
"Which side are you on?" the old union song asked, and the answer, to most Americans, is a shrug of the shoulders. I dunno. Whatever.
This so-called "Silent Majority" is often portrayed as loyal citizens who do not question the status quo, but, in a democracy, to fail to question the government is the fundamental act of disloyalty.
You don't have to disagree, but you do have to question.
Then there are those uninvolved souls who say they question the government, who claim to disagree with it, but then make knee-jerk anti-government jokes and say, "What can you do?", as if they were too worldly and wise to waste energy fighting the inevitable.
If silence were a sign of intelligence, every doorknob would qualify as a genius.
A thought you do not act upon is no different than a thought you did not have, and I would rather be surrounded by people too stupid to realize what is going on than by people too lazy and apathetic to act upon what they see.
These self-proclaimed free-thinkers who refuse to take action on their beliefs are like a crowd standing on the shore watching a child drown. It would be better if they were not there, than for that child to perish knowing how many people could have done something to help.
And, while it is often said that, in a democracy, people get the government they deserve, the impact of apathy goes well beyond government. A free society is shaped by the opinions and preferences of its people, who, accordingly, not only get the government they deserve, but also get the media they deserve, the automobiles they deserve, the food they deserve, the clothing they deserve, the families they deserve ... in short, they get the lives they deserve.
Yet it takes so little to make a mark, to change your world. In a sea of screaming fanatics, a quiet voice stands out. The new voice, the voice that does not seek to provoke, the voice that speaks up once, is the voice that is heard, and remembered, in the halls of government, in the corporate offices, in the places where power waits for direction.
That core group who write frequent letters to the editor represents a tiny fraction of our readers, and they don't represent every shade of opinion among that readership. But, in a small community where the newspaper has nearly the status of a public utility, those who write letters do a great deal to set the tone of that community, and to select which issues are discussed in that community. That group of letter writers is given real power by the many who don't bother to make their views known.
Of course, the silent ones have the right to sit back and let others set the public agenda. It is their absolute right to count for nothing.
But I wish more people would add their voices to the mix, not by shouting and waving placards in the streets, but by just expressing an opinion and partaking in our society.
Often, someone will call the newsroom, upset with something they've read in the paper or seen around the area, asking us to do a story. Sometimes, it does result in a story.
But not always.
And, when a story isn't likely to result, the editor or reporter will suggest, "Why don't you write a letter to the editor?"
The sad thing is, callers frequently think they’re being told to shut up and go away. In fact, they are being invited to join the process of building our society.