The Ethics of Silence and of Speaking Up

The virtues of silence have long been recognized. The popular saying “speech is silver but silence is golden” may date back to ancient Egypt. It probably means that in some circumstances the less you say the better it is. I can imagine that when you are in the company of strangers, discretion would be more appropriate than indiscretion.

Keeping a secret can be a form of silence that is highly ethical.

Silence in some cases is a legal right. If you are being arrested, you do have “the right to remain silent.” The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution permits you not to answer specific questions when you may, by the answers given, incriminate yourself.

Sometimes silence is an obligation as when its purpose is not to disturb the tranquility of others such as in the library or the Amtrak silence car. I am afraid I was oblivious to that obligation last week as I boarded an Amtrak train on my way to Annapolis, Md., to speak to a PRSA Chapter. I asked the gentleman sitting next to me whether he was going to Washington, D.C. He looked at me as if I was insane, which prompted me to question his sanity. He finally, with apparently great self-control, whispered to me intensely: “This is the silence car!” I did not even know Amtrak had one!

Silence can be used in sending a powerful message. The Holocaust survivor and author and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel once said that it was impossible to find the correct words to describe the Holocaust, and that maybe the best way would be to find the greatest contemporary actor to appear on the world’s greatest stage and just remain silent.

Moments of silence are used in contemplation, reflection and in remembrance of loved ones that we have lost.

However, remaining silent also can be highly unethical.

We should be careful that our silence is not deceptive, allowing others to believe what we know for certain is not true.

We ought not remain silent when facing injustice and abuse but “speak truth to power.” We should not remain silent when witnessing wrongdoing. In those circumstances, silence is not morally acceptable; we have a duty to speak up.

Remaining silent also can represent a risk. James E. Lukaszewski, APR, Fellow PRSA, believes that in today’s world of overwhelming chatter and information overload, “silence is the most toxic strategy” to reputation and integrity. If we remain silent, someone else will fill the void with more made-up chatter and misinformation. He believes that, “Managing your destiny is up to you.” He advocates a very specific strategy to keep your own record straight.

How then should we determine when is the time to remain silent and when is the time to speak?

Rabbi Cutler of Montreal, in an article published by The Canadian Jewish News, suggests we ask ourselves three questions before deciding.

“Ecclesiastes teaches that there is ‘a time to be silent and a time to speak.’” However, “Ecclesiastes doesn’t give guidance as to which situations merit which response. Each situation becomes a judgment call. I ask myself:

  1. Will my voice make a difference?
  2. Does engaging this time mean I will be more, or less effective the next time?
  3. How will I see myself in 20 years if I don’t speak up?”

I believe we should consider the well-being of those who will be impacted by our decision not to speak up.

Two of the fundamental values of the PRSA Code of Ethics are fairness and loyalty. By remaining silent when faced with injustice, we are neither fair to others nor loyal to ourselves and our values.

As William Faulkner once said, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world … would do this, it would change the earth.”

Emmanuel Tchividjian is the principal and owner of The Markus Gabriel Group, an ethics and communication consulting practice. Emmanuel was for close to 20 years a senior vice president and chief ethics officer at Ruder Finn. Tchividjian was certified Compliance & Ethics Professional from the SCCE in 2006. He is the Ethics Officer of PRSA’s New York Chapter and a member (ex-officio) of National Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.

1 Comment

  • I agree silence can be good at time, but I don’t think corporate companies have the luxury to choose anymore with the creation of social media. I think it’s the companies responsibility to speak up when certain issues are being debated in society or else they lose the loyalty of their consumers. Just in the last couple of days we have seen various companies speak out against gun violence and divest from the NRA. Saying nothing also says something.

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