Can Silence and Advocacy Go Together?

When is it okay to refrain from speaking up?

Recently I have had the opportunity to be in conversation with students and physicians in training. These conversations are energizing. It is such joy to see their growth and the authentic desire to make a difference. Our conversations continue to ignite my hope and faith. 

I have also followed the conversions at the national and international levels, especially regarding the current COVID-19 status and the issues it has revealed around equality and a just culture. I find myself pondering even more and continuing to seek to understand. 

My ponderings are centered around silence and advocacy. 

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
—Eli Wiesel

“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”
—Malala Yousafzai

I’ve been holding these two quotes in my heart, wondering if I may disagree with such wise counsel from a gentleman and a young woman I admire.

Can you be a silent advocate? The tension of holding this paradox has led to a lot of reflection. Can silence be a form of advocacy? 

Is simply “being”enough? Is being true to my values enough or do I have to be “doing”? 

Unsure of the answers, I turned my attention to thinking about the benefits of being silent and what I lose when I am silent. Reflecting on my own experiences around my regrets when I was not silent or grateful when I resisted speaking was very insightful.

Benefits of Being Silent

  • Silence allows for listening. It helps me listen to myself, it helps me to listen to others. Silence may allow for other voices to be heard.

  • Silence allows introspection. This listening within allows a discernment of when to be silent and when to speak up. This discernment is vital as there are times when speaking maybe more harmful. I remember when training in India the culture believed that sharing a “bad diagnosis” with an elderly person may be ominous, take away hope and hasten an untoward event. This is countercultural to the ethics of autonomy here in the United States. 

  • Speaking without accurate information may lead to irreparable consequences, create untoward ripple effects. 

  • Silence allows me to gauge the situation, gain deeper understanding. 

  • Silence can protect me, and at those times it is a form of self-kindness, self-care. Often I can gauge the risk of speaking up based on the perception of my role within the existing hierarchy, whether stated or implied. 

Speaking up can be risky. However, at times, remaining silent takes courage! How can I discern when being silent is calculated rather than strategic?  

What is Lost By Silence?

Remaining silent can make me feel uncomfortable! It creates internal conflict. I notice an internal series of questions, as if the answers will give me courage to speak up or remain silent for now:

  • Will my voice will make a difference? (Is this an excuse? Is it selfish?)

  • Will I be mistaken as being weak, or indifferent, or unprepared, or uninterested?

  • How do I remain true to my values if I do not speak up?

  • Am I being a bystander?

  • Is being silent dangerous?

  • Whose voice is being marginalized?

  • When can my voice empower the voice of others? 

At times, especially around issues I am passionate about, keeping silent feels exhausting, yet the fear of speaking up too risky. I remember experiences when speaking up led to being called out overtly or to microaggressions. Such memories make keeping silent a welcome option. 

How can I determine when to remain silent and when to speak?

I do not have an answer! However I’ve found a few things to be helpful:

  • Maintaining an inner dialogue that is authentic.

  • Choosing with intention to be present and focused in conversations.

  • Attempting reflection before speaking, especially in conversations with meaningful relationships or high stakes conversations. 

My Naniji’s Advice

I remember a valuable lesson from my Naniji, my maternal grandmother. Though she was not educated in academic studies, she was incredibly wise. She visited often and we got to spend time together. One particular conversation continues to prove invaluable. I remember being upset about something a friend had told another friend about me. I was hurt and told Naniji about the episode. She in her wise demeanor listened and then calmly shared, “Mukta, God has given us all a tongue. It will wag irrespective if you do good or do bad. When to let it wag is in our control and the choice we have to make. Use it to praise and lift up others. If you cannot say anything good about others, it is better to keep quiet.”

There is many a time these words have been poignant reminders for me! 

With humility here are my thoughts, “Being mindful of the present, I continue to focus on the intention and higher purpose which allows for discernment of when to speak or remain silent”

I continue to learn and reflect. 


How is the coronavirus and civil unrest around racism changing the way you think of self-care, community and resilience? As this challenging time unfolds, I am posting a quote on this blog with a reflection prompt. Please join in the conversation here or on Twitter with your thoughts or what you are doing for self-care and care of others. My book explores such ideas too: Resilient Threads: Weaving Joy and Meaning into Well-Being.