Emma: You’re the writer fellow who’s scared. I’m scared, too. I hear you’ve got a big mouth.
Ned: Is a big mouth a symptom?
Emma: No, a cure.
— Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart
There is a time to speak and a time to remain silent. This ancient wisdom is indisputable. The trick is to tell which is which. Speak too loudly, too early, or too often and you’ll lose your audience. You’ll be tagged as an alarmist, a rabble rouser, a danger to public morale. Speak too softly, too late, or too sparingly and you’ll find yourself in the backwaters of public conversation, ineffectual and largely unheard. Most of us wander around in middle ground, posting things on Facebook, blogging perhaps, exchanging views with the like-minded, signing petitions and donating to causes, praying, if we pray, meditating, trying to bring a little light into our corners of a dark world. That middle ground is where most of us live and move, and where we need to be for the sake of sanity and those we care for every day.
But even for us, the 99% or so, the “ordinary folks,” the call comes. I’ve come to believe that most of us, if we live into adulthood, are given moments when it’s our turn to speak the prophetic word—a warning, an unpopular prediction, a whistle to blow.
Larry Kramer’s 1985 play, The Normal Heart, tells a still gripping, newly relevant story of a man whose moment came at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic. As young men in the gay community in New York celebrates new milestones—the Stonewall Uprising, gay pride parades, broadening public acceptance—Ned (the autobiographical main character) begins to notice an ominous shadow falling on gay beaches and filling the corners of gay bars. Young men are dying, one by one, then in greater numbers, though those numbers are still going largely unreported. No one wants to hear Ned’s suspicions or anxieties. He doesn’t know what to do with the information he’s receiving by word of mouth, by the grapevine, and by his own alert observation. He’s a journalist, but no one is going to want to print the story he has to tell: gay men are infecting one another, probably by sexual contact, with an unknown pathogen that is killing them. Those who are about to die are not saluting him.
We now know, of course, how that story has played out—how many deaths it took to raise public awareness, and how many more to clear the high bar of public indifference to or hostility toward a marginalized population. We know how, even after it was clear that they were not the only affected population, nor responsible for the emergence of the virus, gay people were scapegoated by right-wing preachers and pundits, threatened and ostracized with renewed virulence. But at the time, at its beginning, the epidemic wasn’t a story. It was a cloud on the horizon.
Ned tells the story at great cost. He tells it because a sympathetic, tough-minded, sharp-eyed doctor challenges him to use his “big mouth” to save his community—his closest friends, his closeted friends, his political enemies, and the dismissive weekend revelers on Fire Island who don’t want him raining on their parade. One friend, well-situated in city government, doesn’t want to be “outed” and risk his chances of reelection.
As another pandemic spreads, a new generation is having to learn how and when to prophesy or protest. This past week Amy Goodman, a journalist who has often put herself in harm’s way to speak truth to power, interviewed one of the many who have stepped up and consented to speak up. Sean Petty, a registered nurse, appeared in scrubs, mask around his neck, in what appeared to be a small hospital utility room. The facts he relayed put into necessary perspective what most of us had been hearing. Exposed healthcare workers without adequate PPE had gone for a month without access to tests for themselves. Without tests, none of the published statistics were accurate. Help lines were blocked for hours, and unnecessary paperwork discouraged all but the most desperate applicants for assistance or care. So healthcare workers were getting sick and dropping out of the ranks. “We’ve tried to go the official routes,” Petty reported.
“We’ve been talking to high-level officials at the city for the last week, . . . telling . . . exactly what’s wrong with their accounting of the situation. And they have still refused to budge. We’ve talked to them practically every day for the last five days, and they still have not listened to us. So, we have to speak out in a more loud and effective way.”
Petty went on to predict the consequences of further official negligence, to describe what a “robust” healthcare system might look like, and to challenge the public to challenge those with purse strings to act in specific, responsible, life-saving ways. His sanity and clarity and courage offered listeners a prophetic word: a reading of the present situation, a deep understanding of the forces at work, a warning about culpable ignorance, a challenge to amplify the sound of informed protest.
His message found an echo in an interview with Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She spoke about witnessing deaths directly caused by incompetence, science denial, and inequality. She described the exceptional vulnerability within one of the “blackest and brownest communities in New York City” where many have been afraid to seek help for fear of deportation or loss of public services. These are the same people, she pointed out, who prepare our food, stock grocery shelves, deliver goods, clean hospital hallways. She connected dots; she named the less obvious factors making people more vulnerable: illegal dumping and concentrated waste sites, trucking zones where air pollution has been “exported” to poor communities–consignment of the poor to prison for minor offenses—prisons that have become breeding grounds for infection. Progressives love her. In other quarters she’s dismissed, misquoted and threatened.
Others have spoken up in recent weeks; Saru Jayaraman on behalf of those living on $2 an hour wages and tips; Sarah Nelson on behalf of flight attendants facing layoffs during a corporate bailout; parents on behalf of kids whose education is at risk for lack of technology. And so on. The list is long.
Here’s what they do and what we need to be willing, any of us, to do:
Speak out of turn
Speak from your best sources
and cite them
Vary the focus
Look upstream for sources of the problem
Name specific instances
Spell out likely consequences
Connect the dots between events and presenting problems
Dodge trigger words
Watch for the right moment
But don’t wait for an invitation
Be willing to be dismissed
Launch the anger on a sea of compassion
Stay in the conversation
It’s a good time to be asking ourselves where to find our place in the conversation. Not everyone needs to speak or write; some need to be wiping down counters or continuing construction work or patiently learning how to post lessons online. But the unsettling airport post, “If you see something, say something,” has assumed new meaning for me. We’re all in the process of noticing and taking stock of the consequences of viral spread in our neighborhoods, our households, the economy, the parks, the planet. And of the weakening of trust in the media and each other. As we look for ways to rebuild that trust and ways to reconnect, some of us may have to step out a little further than the neatly fenced boundaries of our comfort zones. If we know something others need to know, it may be time to tell them. We don’t need to know who needs to know. We do need to pay attention to those nudges that move us toward the platform—actual or virtual—to deliver what may seem like bad news. Because, if I recall history rightly, the route to good news takes us right through the bramble patch of bad news.