When Is It Right to Stay Silent?
If you know that a person or group has poor intentions, it may make sense to begin documenting and reporting nefarious activity
In both our professional and personal lives, we are sometimes witness to things that may be kept hidden from others.There are, of course, perfectly healthy situations where information is, rightfully, on a need to know basis. Unfortunately, there are also less healthy situations where information about potential harm or damage is held close or even withheld entirely. These types of situations raise a number of questions, among them: When is it right to stay silent? When is it right to speak up?
To say that it is difficult to know what to do in these types of situations would be an understatement. It is normal to wrestle with whether to turn a blind eye or to speak up. While what to do in these types of situations is far from a binary decision, I’d like to offer a few thoughts that may help guide a person that finds themselves in this type of a tough spot:
It may seem to go without saying, though intentions do matter. The same action with different intentions can have vastly different meanings and ramifications. That is why it is often best to reserve judgment when we observe something. We simply don’t know the facts of the situation, the broader context in which it is occurring, and/or the intentions of the person or group doing it. That being said, if you know for a fact that a person or group has poor intentions, it may make sense to begin documenting and reporting nefarious activity you observe from them.
People or groups who act in bad faith know that talk is cheap. As such, they often know just the right words to say to distract people from looking at their actions. This can include flirting with, cozying up to, and/or sweet talking influencers and decision makers who they don’t want getting wise to them. It is important to remember that actions speak louder than words. Observing, documenting, and reporting the actions of bad faith actors is the only way to shed light on them. Even armed with facts, it may be extremely difficult to get people to actually look at the evidence that appears before their very eyes. As a famous quote that is often attributed to Mark Twain so aptly states, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
Information withheld to mislead
There is a reason that the phrase “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is said by witnesses as they are sworn in and put under oath. By telling half-truths, selectively omitting details, inserting bits of the truth here and there, and blatantly lying, bad faith actors can very easily mislead people. Misleading people is a great way for those with poor intentions to keep the attention off of themselves and for them to craft public opinion in a way that the court of public opinion is not likely to believe allegations against them or indict them. This can serve their purposes well, of course. As such, it is important to know the facts and the truth and to document any differences between what is true and what the masses have been misled to believe is true.
As gray as an area as speaking up might be, particularly when we don’t know all of the facts, the situation becomes more black and white when abuse is happening. Abuse takes many different forms, among them psychological and emotional. Unlike physical and sexual abuse, psychological and emotional abuse don’t leave physical scars and evidence, even though they can cause a tremendous amount of damage. Because of the lack of physical signs, the perpetrators are often able to harm their victims in secret for years without being discovered. Not surprisingly, friends, families, and communities supporting and providing safe harbor to those committing psychological and emotional abuse won’t want to hear about it, no matter how egregious. Despite this, it is important to document and report evidence of this abuse, even though those close with the perpetrator might dismiss it, or worse yet, might try to vilify you, control the conversation, divert it off-topic, or shut it down entirely.
Good faith actors deserve the benefit of the doubt when we observe them doing something we might not initially understand. That being said, when bad faith actors take advantage of our willingness and tendency to give the benefit of the doubt, should lies be allowed to remain veiled in secrecy? Is there benefit to open debate and to allowing the truth to see the light of day? Although the road to shedding light on the facts may be difficult, it is most often worth traveling down. That being said, seek anonymous channels to document and report nefarious activity when possible. Although most companies have an anti-retaliation policy, it is difficult to enforce. It is important to remember that the personality types that engage in the sort of activity discussed in this piece are usually prone to retaliatory activities, so be cautious.