The Power of Collective Silence


                                                by Neal Lemery

(Published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 5/24/22)

            I found myself at a local café, having a late breakfast, with about a dozen other community members who had the same idea.  At a nearby table, a family was enjoying themselves, highlighted by the smiles and laughter of their sweet six-month-old baby.

            As babies are wont to do, laughter turned into cries and wails, filling the busy café with sounds of distress. Mom quickly responded by picking up the baby and cuddling it, as good parents do.

            The man at the counter turned towards the family, a look of disgust and anger on his face.

            “You need to take him outside and give him something to cry about.  He needs a good spanking for acting that way,” he said, his booming voice reverberating throughout the room.

            In an instant, the room fell into a deep and pregnant silence.  Every eye turned towards the angry man, every face stony and silent.  Nothing was said, the only sound now the quiet murmurs of the now-again content baby.  

            My mind whirled, part of me wanting to stand up and give the man a piece of my mind, the idiocy of violence, the long-lasting impact of what we euphemistically call “corporal punishment,” and the rudeness of strangers interjecting their values on a young family who were simply out for a good time with their child. 

            Slapping, spanking, the mentality of “giving you something to cry about”, pushed a lot of my emotional buttons, bringing back bad memories in my own life, both personal and professional.  I well knew the impact of that kind of thinking on family members and friends, and how those traumatic experiences often profoundly impact us for the rest of our lives.  

            No one said a word, even the cook stopping her work at the stove, as we all glared at the man, until he finally turned back in his seat and took a sip of his coffee.  A long minute passed, until the baby laughed a little and we all resumed our lives, until we all realized something important was being said in the silence.  

            It was a good minute, a minute of both rebuke for a really bad idea and a time to reflect on how we should deal with kids, what they need from the rest of us. 

It gave me pause to reflect on whether I should have launched into my lecture to the man about the evils of violence and the messages that sends to kids.  The silence gave me time to again realize that my well-rehearsed rant on using violence and anger to raise a child would have likely fallen on deaf ears, that the man wouldn’t be changing his thinking because of what I was going to tell him. I was reminded of the power of collective silence, and I felt that power reverberate through the café. 

            If he was going to change his thinking, that would come at a different time, in a different place, when he was ready to really hear what he had said, and how he looks at the world, and how he learns about his community’s values. 

            Instead, the community at that café spoke a bigger message, in that big, beautiful collective silence of disapproval and disgust.  Mere words wouldn’t have been nearly as effective as our group effort to turn our heads towards the man, and simply be silent.  

            Conversations resumed, and the man kept being ignored.  The waitress didn’t refill his coffee, and slapped down his check beside his empty cup.  He left his money and slipped out the door, not daring to utter another word.  

            I often overestimate the value of a well-turned phrase, or what I might think is a polished, professional writing on a particular issue.  Sometimes, it is in the silence that we truly hear the words of wisdom, the message we want to send, the message we need to hear.


Looking for the Real Men

–—Neal Lemery

It is football season, but instead of team rankings and excited discussions about last night’s game, we are talking about domestic violence and criminal charges filed against macho guys who are supposed to be the big stars, the tough heroes of the very essence of he-man professional sports in this country.

There are public expressions of outrage and deep discussions are happening. Advertisers and sponsors are flexing their own muscles, not wanting to be seen as paying athletes who are violent, even criminal. How should we respond when the strong, he-men heroes of the gridiron are caught on tape beating their lovers unconscious with their fists, or leaving bloody wounds after beating their four year old sons with sticks and whips in the name of “family discipline”?

What does it mean to be a man in our society? Who should we look to for role models on how to be a healthy American man? For once, the answer to that doesn’t seem to come from the gridiron on a Sunday afternoon. It’s not about scoring the winning touchdown anymore, but how are you supposed to behave with your wife, how are you supposed to raise your child and guide them lovingly through childhood, teaching them about a father’s love?

But isn’t a man supposed to be strong, to be the winner, not showing any weakness, any sensitivity? Isn’t that the message we hear when we watch the “big game”? Aren’t those guys the heroes we seem to want to have to look up to?

“I have to remain strong,” a friend told me this week, as we talked about manhood and love, how we are supposed to act in this society.

Yet, strong isn’t necessarily tough. Strong isn’t what we need now in this country as the mantra of a good, healthy American man. At least, that kind of “strong” that we’ve been seeing in that videotape of the famous, and highly overpaid football player, punching his girlfriend into unconsciousness. And, it’s not the “strong” kind of abuse that another pro football player is trying to somehow explain to us, after he’s been indicted for assaulting his four year old son with a stick, bloodying the child as a way of expressing “discipline” and “love”.

“That’s how I was raised,” he says, as if that somehow makes violence and the teaching of fear acceptable parenting.

After all, it was a “good whupping”, about teaching his son to “behave”.

No, the “strong” man has other ways of expressing love, of raising a child, or supporting his girlfriend in their relationship, of truly being a partner, and not an abuser, a real domestic terrorist.

Isn’t the real domestic terrorism in this country the plague of domestic violence? Isn’t domestic violence and the terror it produces the real public health crisis in this country, the real warfare that is tearing apart families, and instilling fear and chaos?

Isn’t it time we said enough is enough, that we redefine what it means to be a real man in this country? To be a real hero?

It’s OK to cry, to cry about love and grief, and family. It’s OK to show love and emotion, to be open about how we feel, about how we care about the people we love, people that we hold close to ourselves, people who are family.

Maybe, just maybe, if good, big hearted men cried in public, and cried in front of their loved ones, we’d be better men; we’d have a gentler, safer world to live in.

In showing that compassion, that willingness to be honest and open about how we really are, how we really feel, we are truly being men, men who are healthy, men of integrity, men of moral character. Isn’t that part of being a good parent, being open and honest about how we feel, about how we care, about how we love? Don’t we want to teach our kids those values?

Yes, we can be good role models to our family, to our community. Maybe professional football players can be sensitive, caring, understanding men, men who model good child rearing, good partnering, good husband-ship. With all their money and prestige, and powerful influence on millions of people in this country who look up to their strength and athletic abilities as symbols of leadership and character, maybe these athletes can respond to the calling of being healthy, good men, true men who are the essence of healthy masculinity.