an unPlanned road

silence, speech, and criticism

The alluring smell of freshly brewed coffee from Olga’s wafts by as I stride down the block, causing my stomach to churn with the grumbles and gurgles of lunchtime hunger.  Despite these incessant pleas, I do not stray from my path; the pride I feel overwhelms any pang of hunger and I march on.  Admittedly, my pride borders on excessive as I walk down the block—I congratulate myself with each step, reminded of the time I am sacrificing, time that could be spent studying for upcoming midterms. My eyes remain glued to my destination: a beige, non-descript building at the intersection of Point and Chestnut.

At first glance, any walker-by would look over this building. I did, many times. The dingy limestone slabs covering the exterior blend in with the concrete sidewalk, creating a taupe mass that almost asks to be overlooked. The two trees only further obscure the building, their branches shielding it from the high volume of cars speeding by on Point Street at every hour of the day. Many times I have been a passenger in one of these cars, and many times I have passed by the concrete structure without second glance. I have sped by, Olga’s coffee in hand, too focused on my conversation or final destination to pay any mind to the beige bulk on the corner.  Today, however, this beige bulk is my destination. As I near the building, the eggshell lettering is all I see and I wonder how I could have ever ignored it.  The blue letters, obscured by the fern tree in front, read “Planned Parenthood of Southern New England.”

I had told some friends that I was going to Planned Parenthood later that day.  Each time, I was greeted with uncomfortable silence—not a long period of silence, but just enough time without a response for palpable awkwardness.  The silence would then be followed by a faint, sympathetic smile and a vague exclamation: “Oh! Ah…ok.” I then try to relieve my friends’ social unease, “Oh no, just to volunteer.” Their discomfort dissipates, replaced by a full-blown smile and a booming endorsement:  “Ooooooh! Good for you!” After the third of these conversations I realized I should probably just spare everyone by prefacing my announcement with an explanation.

My friends’ awkward responses were somewhat unsettling. I had forgotten that abortion, even amongst my extremely liberal friends at Brown, is a widely avoided subject. Over various conversations in the Blue Room and the Rock about Planned Parenthood, although abortion was the subject, the word itself was never uttered. We skirted around the topic, using silence as a supplement.

I undoubtedly would have been no better in such a conversation; I too would have engaged in awkward sitried to avoid using the word abortion amongst the sleepy crowd of students waiting for their morning coffee in the Blue Room. What strikes me as odd, though, is how vocal (most) Brown students are, my friends and myself included, about abortion when it comes to politics.  We vehemently criticize any ‘pro-life’ politician, unafraid of who is listening.  We protest, loudly and proudly, against those in Washington trying to defund Planned Parenthood.  We post statuses, articles, Instagrams, tweets telling our hundreds Facebook friends that we are pro-choice, and that they should be too.  Why, then, when abortion becomes personal, do we opt for silence?

As I neared the Planned Parenthood building, I became aware of three people positioned at the foot of the steps leading up to the building. They seemed fairly harmless from afar, dressed in jeans and tee shirts, standing casually:  I assumed they were pedestrians or patients. As I walked closer, the posters propped up next to them on the street corner came into focus: one was a photo of an infant with ‘Murder’ written in red block letters, and the other read ‘Let God Plan Parenthood.’ These people were neither pedestrians nor patients, they were protestors.

My position was unmistakable, as my shirt made me a walking Planned Parenthood endorsement:  florescent pink with the words “I stand with Planned Parenthood” printed across the front. I braced myself the worst, preparing to be bombarded by these three people with hateful slurs, castigations, sermons about how people like me deserve to be in hell. As a volunteer for Planned Parenthood, I am not allowed to speak to the protestors for legal reasons. Instead, I am instructed to remain silent.

I stiffened my back and puffed my chest, attempting to exude my pride for being a Planned Parenthood volunteer. I walked head held high toward the cement mass, unafraid and unabashed. Reaching the stairs, I braced myself for the vitriolic indictments of hateful evangelicals.  Instead, however, in front of me stood three average looking people—two women, one man—clutching colored prayer beads.  Their eyes did not meet mine, but rather remained on their hands, where they continuously rolled the prayer beads around their palms.  I paused for a second, words rushing through my head, questions forming in my throat, all eager to be vocalized. I wanted so badly to converse, to question, to explain.  Instead, I followed instructions, remaining silent, waiting for my admonishment.

It never came.

I turned up the steps to enter the building.   As my back faced the protesters, one muttered, “Abortion is murder.” I wanted to turn around, but I kept walking.

This interaction was one of the first in my life where I have been forbidden to speak. Most of the time I am allowed, even encouraged, to share my thoughts.  I wondered as I sat in Planned Parenthood if silence could be a virtue, if my not speaking were more noble than engaging in argument with the three protesters. I questioned (like Brown constantly encourages us to do) the importance of silence, contemplating whether it was underutilized at Brown.

My answer was a resounding no.  I believe the opposite: Speak up.  After I was forced to engage in silence, I realized what a privilege it is to be able to articulate a point of view, engage in what is all too often glibly referred to as ‘meaningful dialogue.’  Silence allows us to avoid complicated issues. It allows us to ignore what matters.  Silence permits those on opposite sides of critical issues to remain unchallenged, uninformed about others’ passionate beliefs.  Raise your voice, even if it is in a sleepy crowd of students at the Blue Room or with stalwart protesters on the steps of a controversial institution.  But with that privilege comes a responsibility: Be prepared to listen.

*This article is not affiliated with Planned Parenthood; these ideas are my own.