On February 23, I couldn’t have located Ukraine on a map. On February 24, it seemed I was expected to articulate my opinions on Vladimir Putin’s invasion of it. As a writer, I have enough of a public platform that I received a number of DMs demanding I write something about Ukraine. I didn’t know how to tell them that I had only just learned the political distinction between Kyiv and Kiev. I Googled Russia+Ukraine+conflict and How far does a nuclear bomb go? I knew I had nothing constructive to say.
Would it really be helpful for me to drown out the sound of the informed or the vulnerable with another clamoring voice? I had reshared posts from sources I trusted. But does solidarity necessitate that I add my particular voice to the noise?
This is not the first time that I have felt pressure to shout into the cacophony that is social media in a moment of tragedy. Our increasing real-time access to the terrors of the world has come with the expectation that we engage with them: name them, denounce them, show how they affect us. We have learned to perform our grief in the public arena. Sometimes, I see posting amid tragedy framed as being “a voice for the voiceless.” But people aren’t “voiceless” so much as suppressed or ignored or exhausted. I’m exhausted.
One of the strangest acts of social-media “solidarity” in recent years was the #BlackoutTuesday campaign of June 2, 2020. In response to the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black people at the hands of police, about 28 million Instagram accounts—individuals, institutions, and brands alike—posted a little black square. The concept is said to have stemmed from two Black women in the music industry—Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang—as a way to disrupt business as usual, and show solidarity with Black Lives Matter. But the general population quickly co-opted it, many thoughtlessly adding #blacklivesmatter or #BLM, which in effect silenced the real activists who use those hashtags, flooding them with black squares. The irony, of course, is that what was supposed to be a display of absence, of removal, actually became a way for non-Black people to take up far more space than they typically would in Black grief.
The campaign was fascinating, complicated, and performative, but maybe it was the kind of theater that can still stir someone. It didn’t stir me. But I think of that day as a significant turning point in the demand for public commentary on tragedy. If a white person didn’t post a black square that day, even I, who found the campaign absurd, found myself a little suspicious of them. Without the black square, I couldn’t know what they thought. But I was uneasy with those who did post, too. Did they do so out of reverence for Black life, or in order to not to be seen as racist?
Too often, I believe, people comment on tragedy in order to absolve themselves of it. That summer, for example, white people rushed to assure us, “I’m here, I’m listening,” when really they meant It wasn’t me. I’m not like them. I’m speaking; are you listening? And do you know how loud the world grows when 28 million people are trying to prove that they aren’t terrible?
Last month, another young Black man was shot by a police officer. His name is Amir Locke, and he looks like my brother. I scrolled past the video, which played without my consent. It was sandwiched between a post about the Olympics and a tweet about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West (or Ye, as he now calls himself). The next morning, I checked my private messages to find three people asking: Can you write something on Amir Locke? Why the silence on Amir Locke? The messages seemed to be part accusation, part desire to repost whatever I would share. I’ve realized that there are times when our voices matter to the digital world only insofar as they can be used and reshared to allow others to feel they’ve done their part to “speak.”
History is unfolding every day, and every day people are at once trying to make sense of it and prove that they are on the right side of it. The invasion of Ukraine, the debate over mask mandates, the tide of attacks against Asian Americans—each worthy of our attention, and even our outrage. Social media is one way to pay attention. But it isn’t the only way.
Audre Lorde famously said, “Your silence will not protect you.” This wisdom has been taken to the extreme. To be silent is to be complicit, people (including myself) have said. This can be true. There is certainly a silence born of cowardice, a silence that emboldens oppressors. But sometimes to be silent is to finally become honest. To halt the theater. In the quiet, we at last hear the sound of our own interior world. The pain or numbness. The guilt. The nothing at all.
In a world of so many traumas and terrors, I am desperate for silence. It is not escapism, not always. It is about meeting oneself. The way you might encounter yourself in the silence of, say, journaling, is distinct from how you reflect in the public arena. In silence, a certain veil is lifted. We might realize that the rage we feel in public is born from fear or despair in private. Healing is a very quiet thing. In the silence, we can wrap our wounds. There are times when taking shelter is a noble thing to do.
On a recent morning, I wake up to news reports of African students struggling to flee Ukraine, a video of a Black woman in a pink coat crying out on a crowded platform as the train behind her apparently rushes to safety, 11 people dead from a Russian rocket strike in Kharkiv. I scroll for a few minutes feeling a pressure in my chest. I close my laptop. Is that okay with you?
I walk the perimeter of my house. There is still a bit of snow on the ground, and its crunch sounds like growling. The sky is bright, so I close my eyes and listen. In the distance, my husband and nephew are giggling and chasing each other in the thawing reeds. A few barn swallows whistle and whir in the space between us. What do we hear when we listen? Some moments aren’t for words.