Say something controversial to me in person, and you usually don’t much of a response. I have to be unusually tired or fed up before I’ll do more than say something non-committal and make an excuse as soon as possible to leave. Often, my withdrawal will be to write about the outrageousness of what just happened, because, in print – having sold some 1400 articles and written some 665 blog entries – I’m not exactly known for my reticence. But occasionally, being silent even in print is forced on me by circumstance, although usually at the cost of biting my tongue hard enough that it needs a dozen stitches.
It doesn’t happen often. I have a naïve reverence for the power of dialog. Unlike my father, who learned in the army that giving your opinion could be dangerous if you were overheard by the brass, I believe in talking, no matter what the consequences. Despite countless examples to the contrary, I continue to believe, very simply and sincerely, that if I can just get a conversation started, I can improve things by pointing out previously overlooked nuances, working to keep people informed, and pointing out possible common ground or solutions that nobody else has raised.
The trouble is, the chance for dialog doesn’t always exist..
For example, once I had the kind of story that every writer dreams about. I had proof of some major financial inconsistencies that an organization had been making for several years running, up to and including a loan made to a former director. It was a rare case of black and white without nuance of gray, and I was practically cackling in anticipation of being a minor league Woodward or Bernstein.
The only trouble was, no reputable editor would touch it. Too controversial, they all said, even though I had evidence. Not the sort of thing we publish, one editor told me. So I fumed and stayed silent, and eventually the story sunk into irrelevancy.
Several times, too, some organization or person I had researched has done and said something rash, and I’ve been in the person in the best position to write a blistering op-ed in reply. And I wanted to, because their actions put one cause or another I believed in into disrepute. Sometimes, I even went so far as drafting a dissection of their actions and possible effects with all the verbal wit of a Dorothy Parker or the polemical skill of a Harlan Ellison (at least in my own imagination). But, in the end, I refrained from publishing.
In these cases, part of my restraint has been my deep-seated reluctance to join a lynch mob. I don’t care for the mob mentality, having been on its receiving end once or twice, and I won’t countenance it; it feels too much like being a bully, no matter how justified.
More importantly, while the organization or person may deserve to be called into account, the causes they represent may not. Yet it is not always easy to separate the organization or person from their causes. An attack on the organization of purpose may hurt the cause. So, once again, I shut up, fuming that I am letting someone get away with crassness or stupidity while seeing no other choice except to attack a worthwhile cause.
So what do I do while such events play out? I listen to favorite music. I go for harder than usual workouts. Sometimes, too, I write other things, including blog entries on the difficulty of silence.