The first day of class the law professor strode into the room. The first thing he did was ask for the name of one student sitting in the front row.
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Nelson,” replied the student.
“Get out of my class and never come back,” the instructor ordered.
Nelson was confused, but he got up quickly, packed up his stuff and hurriedly left the classroom. Everyone else was nonplussed and a bit frightened, but no one said a thing.
“Very good,” the teacher said. “Now let’s get started. What are laws for?”
The students felt intimidated, but slowly began answering.
“To have order in our society,” one said.
“No,” the answer was immediate.
“So that people pay for their actions,” another responded.
“No! Does anyone know the answer to this question?” he continued.
“For justice to be done,” one timid answer came from a young girl.
“Finally,” the professor applauded. “Justice! But what is justice?”
By now, the students were irritated and confused, but they kept answering.
“To protect the rights of the people,” another offered.
“OK. But still … ” The teacher wanted more.
“To differentiate good from bad, to reward those who do good,” another student offered.
“So, answer this question: Did I act correctly when I kicked Nelson out of class?” the teacher asked.
Nobody spoke. The room was silent.
“Speak up. I want a unanimous answer,” the instructor bellowed.
“No,” they answered in one voice.
“Could we say I committed an injustice?” the teacher probed.
“Yes,” came back the united response.
“So why has nobody done anything about it?” the teacher asked. “Why do we want laws and rules if we don’t have the will to practice them? Each of you is obliged to speak up when you witness an injustice. Every single one of you. Don’t ever stay quiet again. Now somebody go and get Nelson to return to class. After all, he is the real teacher.”
I have paraphrased this narrative that came across my Facebook feed and, trying hard, couldn’t find a source for whom to attribute it. At the bottom of the story was the name Doris Carrier, but no proof of her authorship was found; the source, however, isn’t as important as the message.
The point of the story is that each of us encounters injustices frequently but too often say or do nothing in response. Not everyone keeps quiet. CNN recently aired a story about James, a Lyft driver in Pennsylvania. He was assigned to pick up a fare and when he arrived, the woman got into the car and immediately made a racially directed remark to him.
James told her to get out of the car, that he didn’t have to drive people who were prejudiced. Her husband, not yet in the car, heard the driver and was incensed, threatening him with physical violence or legal action. James boldly told the guy to bring it on. He had the whole interchange filmed on his camera, and he wasn’t going to put up with this. His company backed him up, even praised him, for refusing abuse and speaking against it.
Sadly, the driver’s response was uncommon. Why have we become so intimated, so browbeaten, so threatened that we aren’t willing to speak out?
I have a theory. We have been bullied into submission and acquiescence when injustices occur, whether large or small. We have forgotten that this country exists today because colonists spoke up and took action against injustice. We have sent our young to fight wars to right injustices. We have marched and protested against racial, sexual and social injustice. But for some reason we are too timid, too intimidated or too threatened by repercussions to raise our voices.
The oft-spoken piece by Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller is a poignant reminder of the results of silence to injustice.
“First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
“Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
“Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
A growing number are voicing concerns about the future of this country. Their warnings are valid. Our way of life, our country, will not stand long if we just watch injustice and do nothing to oppose it. As we’ve often heard, if you see something, say something.
Tom Campbell is a former assistant N.C. State Treasurer and was the creator/host of N.C. SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of N.C. issues that aired on UNC-TV until 2020. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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