This past week marked an important occasion in the Maine Senate. We celebrated a profound truth — one we all knew, one we learned yet again. We learned again that there is power in speaking out in the face of intolerance, power in bearing witness.
Over the past several weeks, it came to light that one of Maine’s legislators has been using derogatory language and disparaging the religious beliefs, cultural heritage and traditions of other Americans. Because such acts and expressions historically have been known to promote prejudice and incite fear, they are not appropriate, not by anyone, particularly not by Maine’s elected leaders. The Maine Senate reaffirmed its expectation that all public officials conduct themselves with civility and respect toward others, shunning bias, bigotry and racism.
We acknowledged there will always be intolerance in the world. The question is, will we let it slip by because it is easier to keep silent? Or will we, as individuals and as Mainers, speak out and say “no, that is not right.” This week, the Maine Senate celebrated the power of speaking out and the importance of holding ourselves to a higher standard.
My wife and I have an adopted daughter from China. When she was in the third grade, another child made mocking and offensive remarks about her race. When we went to the principal, his action was immediate and effective. He called the child and her parents into his office. He spoke to the school during an assembly. He told them remarks that denigrate another student absolutely were not acceptable. It did not happen again. Those elementary school children learned about harmful talk, the importance of respecting the dignity of their peers and the power of speaking out.
Sixty-five years ago this June, one of Maine’s most revered citizens, Margaret Chase Smith, stood on the U.S. Senate floor and, very much against the tide, made her Declaration of Conscience speech. She called on her colleagues to reject the ignorance, bigotry and fear in a recent speech by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. She called her colleagues to a higher standard and insisted that all people be treated with dignity and respect. All of America listened, and people everywhere learned.
It is easy to speak out when all around us agree.
The difficulty lies in the quiet moments of yesterday and of tomorrow when we stand alone, when the hurtful message we hear is not obvious, when it is coded, cloaked in laughter, when the insult to the dignity of another is woven into the subtle undercurrents of our language. The casual racist, sexist, hurtful remark, the slur hidden by humor, the offhand ethnic or religious put-down — that is the challenge.
It requires courage to speak out when we are alone; when we have little support; when we must hold family, friends and those we respect accountable for their words of intolerance. To speak out, we must know ourselves and know what we stand for. We must be able to speak with caring and without hostility, with humility and without hypocrisy.
The alternative to speaking out is silence.
This venerable prayer is about silence:
Silence is the voice of complicity.
Silence is a message.
Doing nothing is an act.
The Maine Senate was not silent. None of us can afford to be silent.
Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, is a physician. He represents Bangor and Hermon in the Maine Senate.