"The Greatest Ethical Challenge: To Speak" by Joshua Thomas

Co-Winner, High School Category, Student/Teacher Essay Contest: “Ethics for a Connected World,” 2012

February 21, 2013

Joshua Chamberlain Thomas

Joshua Thomas is an 18 year-old high school senior at Blue Valley High School, Stilwell, Kansas.

Essay Topic: In your opinion, what is the greatest ethical challenge or dilemma facing the planet?

The Greatest Ethical Challenge: To Speak

"…silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech."
—Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967

My nimble toes tapped across the Lego-strewn floors; I entered my parents' bathroom eager for attention. Looking into their mirror, I gazed upon my smiling, chocolate-covered face topped with an Einstein hairdo. I could hear my parents arguing, but paid little attention.  All I could make out was, "How dare you!" and, "I thought you were better again." My naïve and childish mind allowed me to assume that my father broke a triple-dog dare or became ill again. My yearning for attention would not be satisfied at that moment; I continued looking for other means of mollification.

Dad occupied our basement for his medical studies. Basement-bound traffic increased substantially when he splurged on a big screen television. I ambled downstairs to watch Pokemon, turned on the mammoth monitor, and flopped onto the plaid couch. Instead of my anticipated soft landing, my head hit something hard.

After the throbbing in my head subsided, I lifted the pillow and found a glass bottle with a distinct red and yellow label. "Odd. I've seen this bottle before." I remember seeing my father furtively sip out of a similar bottle and then hide it in a brown sack. He looked guilty, as if he wronged the family. I examined the bottle curiously and deduced that the clear liquid was called Vodka. From that point forward, Vodka became my sworn enemy.

I tried to forget about the bottle as I mindlessly surfed daytime television. "Should I tell my mom I found a Vodka bottle? Should I tell my dad he lost his Vodka bottle? Should I pretend I saw nothing at all?" I bought into the belief that the problem could be erased with a simple flick of the wrist and a strong resolution to forget. I covered up the bottle, turned off the television, and hid my thoughts.

Days turned into weeks as I continued to fool myself about what I had seen, or rather, hadn't seen. I avoided my parents' conflicts. I avoided recalling the incident. I was afraid the two were related.

But memories can't be outrun. My mother sat me down one day and asked me if I had seen "anything." Her ambiguous phrasing offered me a chance for escape.  She tried the question again, with more specificity: "Have you seen your father do anything…strange?" This was my chance to confess, to relieve my burden and to help my mother right the wrongs.

I did not respond to my mother's cross-examination that day. However, this particular avoidance set an elusive pattern that still haunts me. There would be many more "incidents," many more confrontations with my mother, and many more opportunities for me to avoid the truth.

As a seven year-old, I was not equipped to understand the implications of my silence.  I'm not sure I am equipped to handle it now.  It was a difficult choice: protect my father or confess to my mother. 

My parents eventually divorced; my father died a few years later, suffering from alcoholism.  I was burdened with guilt; what if I had chosen a different course?  What if I told my mother what I saw? What if I had talked to my dad?  Could I have saved him? 

I have been reassured that nothing was my fault, that I was not in any way responsible for the outcome of events. But words could not and still do not clear my conscience. Retrospection is a peculiar thing.  I know it is unhealthy to continue to blame myself, but I am trapped in a perpetual cycle of wondering how the past could be changed.  Now, as a young adult, I understand my sins of omission. I understand my silence only prolonged the inevitable. I learned from my chosen silence, more than I should have at such a young age. I wish this learning upon no one. 

And what have I learned?  That silence is the greatest ethical challenge; that it is so much easier to stay silent, to say nothing, to fly under the radar.  To not act, to acquiesce.

Easier not to protest against the dictatorial leanings of the new Egyptian leader.  Easier not to defend my classmates when they are teased about their sexual orientation.  Easier not to demand the right for women to vote in 1919.  Easier not to march against the war in Viet Nam.   Easier not demand equality for all in Mississippi in 1962.  Easier not to demand equal rights for women in Saudi Arabia. Easier not to defend the rights of couples who want to marry legally.  Easier not to challenge my elders when they make a prejudicial comment.  Easier not to advocate for the abolition of slavery in Boston in 1857.  Easier not to challenge my teacher on a point in class.  Easier not to speak of the atrocities in Syria and demand change.

The issues change over time and space, but the core issue remains the same.  Will I be silent or will I speak up?  Will I use my voice to do the right thing, to right the wrongs and to make a difference?  Or, will I remain a scared, weak little child and avoid the truth through silence, an act I still regret.  I know that I need to mature to be able to look upon my sin of omission not with lingering guilt, but to appreciate it as a gift.  My gift is that I learned, painfully, at an early age the true ethical dilemma in the world that crosses all generations, all peoples, all cultures, all societies.  We are all given a voice and an opinion.  It is our right and our obligation to use it. We all have it within our power to change our small world, our network of friends and family, our school, our community and our larger world if we just use our voice.  Don’t be silent, don’t let silence be your form of speech as Sontag admonishes, speak!

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