Silence is Also Speech

“Do you know right from wrong?”

“Do you speak out when someone says something offensive?”

“If not, are you silent by choice, or cowardice?”

At a January campaign event in Florida, Rick Santorum fielded this question about President Obama, “He is an avowed Muslim and my question is, why isn’t something being done to get him out of our government?”

Santorum refused to correct the claim, and when questioned afterwards declared, “It’s not my responsibility as a candidate to correct everybody who makes a statement that I disagree with.”

At a March campaign event in Louisiana, Newt Gingrich was silent while an audience member stood and said, “I believe that Obama is not stupid. I also believe that, number one, Obama is a Muslim.”

In a CNN interview afterwards, Gingrich offered a defense he had not bothered to offer when the question was asked, “I believe President Obama is a Christian. He says he’s a Christian, he went to a Christian church for over 20 years, and I believe him.”

These were campaign stops. Santorum and Gingrich were fighting for their political lives, desperately trying to motivate the base to select one of the more conservative candidates over Mitt Romney. That does not make it right, just understandable.

Mitt Romney is the likely Republican nominee. Monday, at a campaign event in Cleveland, a woman asked Romney whether he thought Obama was “operating outside the structure of our Constitution.” The woman then added that the president “should be tried for treason.”

Romney ignored the basic question, and instead replied with a comment about how “brilliant and inspired” the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are.

As Gingrich had before him, but with a response similar to Santorum’s, Romney went on CNN and offered the following defense, “I don’t correct all of the questions that get asked of me. Obviously, I don’t agree that he should be tried.”

Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney were wrong to not correct their audience members. We as Americans have a responsibility to correct those who speak in derogative ways about others. It need not turn into an argument, but often the mere mention one’s words are offensive will give pause and be a source of reflection.

There is a penalty to be paid for doing what is right. At an October 2008 campaign event, a John McCain supported stated, “Obama is an Arab.” McCain took the microphone and replied, “No, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s a decent, family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about.” He was showered with boos for his defense.

mccain

If an audience member were to use the “N-word” to describe President Obama, would not the candidate holding the forum feel an obligation to immediately instruct the speaker he found that word offensive, and say thought or speech like that has no place in our society or political system? Or would he wait until hours later on CNN to do so?

 

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