Knowing when to speak out and when to hold your peace is a fine art, one that I struggle with every day.
Recently at the airport, my granddaughter and I rode the park-and-ride bus from the main terminal to our car in the farthest parking lot. We sat across from a pleasant woman who immediately engaged us in conversation.
In that short ride, we learned enough about her to write a novel. However, social intercourse with total strangers carries a certain risk. The wrong word, even the wrong inflection, can have a huge impact.
Here’s different experience on public transportation. I was on a MARTA train sitting across from a woman with a child in a stroller. Each time the train came into a station, the woman got up, said bye-bye to the child and turned toward the door. The child, who was no more than 2 or 3, immediately began to cry and struggle. The woman returned to her seat smiling as if to say to the other passengers, “See how much my child loves me? See the power I have over her?”
After the third time, it became clear to me that this was child abuse. What should I do? Should I say something? I decided that a child is every one’s responsibility, so the next time she pretended to leave her toddler, I addressed her in a loud voice: “Can’t you see you’re terrifying the poor child?”
The behavior stopped and nothing more happened, but I had interfered in the relationship between a mother and her offspring. Moreover, I had done so in a public place where almost any interaction, especially between socially, culturally or racially different people, can be inflammatory.
These two encounters are extremes. My granddaughter and I enjoyed our brief exchange with the talkative lady. On the other hand, I am deeply disturbed by any woman who would thoughtlessly torment a helpless child. Between these extremes lies a world of complexities.
When I worked as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children, I was a mandated reporter. Mandated reporters are required by law to report child abuse. Teachers, medical personal, social workers and volunteers like CASAs are mandated reporters.
But when the state steps in and puts a child in protective custody, the outcome is not always good. Children are taken away from the only family they know and lodged with complete strangers. Even when it is for the safety of the child, it’s a traumatizing experience. Speaking out becomes morally hazardous. One never knows all the ramifications.
Rather than looking at the social milieu in terms of “mandated reporting,” I’d like to see it as Martin Luther King Jr. did, in terms of the “beloved community.” This is a very different form of shared responsibility. We are our brothers’ keepers.
Being sensitive to our sisters and brothers means not being deliberately rude. Nevertheless, while rudeness is undesirable, is not high of the list of venial sins. To accuse someone of being rude is almost out of date, as if it didn’t matter so much in the course of ordinary behavior.
I beg to differ. When my granddaughter was growing up, I often reprimanded bad behavior by saying sharply, “That was rude!”
Unfortunately, rudeness isn’t a heavily sanctioned act. It should be, because it says to others “I don’t care what you think. I don’t care if I’ve hurt you.”
People who are in community with one another do care when someone is hurt. This isn’t hard to understand, but it is very hard to teach. It runs counter to contemporary culture, which is all about self-expression and an “I-can-do-anything-I-want” attitude.
As a nation, we pride ourselves on our freedom of speech. As a result our laws defend the rude and thoughtless, so it’s up to the community to sanction rude behavior. This is when it is not only acceptable to speak out, it is an obligation.
Joan King is a Sautee resident. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays.