In my last year of high school, I was taking a social studies quiz when the teacher happened to leave the room. Across the classroom from me, a fellow got up and stole over to the teacher’s desk, and copied down the answers from the answer key left right there in the open. Disgusted, I rolled my eyes and kept working on the test, as several other students followed the first guy’s lead, and got up to copy the answers. Pathetic, I thought, because the questions were not actually very hard. In fact, I was pretty sure I knew all of them. But none of my business if those guys wanted to cheat, right?
As it happened, the next time the class met, the teacher had got wind of what had happened, and angrily lectured the entire class, singling out each of us who had got 100%, which in fact I had, though I had done so honestly. (I do not remember for certain if the first guy was ever singled out, though I vaguely recall thinking he had not. I later heard a rumour that he himself had told the teacher on the other students, but I have no way of knowing if this is true.)
I was young and naive and had not yet sorted out in my head the moral question of snitching, so I kept my mouth shut, as furious as I was about the insult to my integrity and my intelligence. It was bad enough to be accused of cheating, but if I had cheated, I would not have been so foolish as to copy all of the answers; I’d have deliberately missed one, just to allay suspicion. (Indeed, had I been craftier, even not cheating but knowing that others were, I should have deliberately missed one question anyway. And now, thinking back on it, it seems plausible to me that’s exactly what the first cheater did, deliberately missing a question and then turning in everyone else.)
Of course, the teacher had no way to prove who had cheated and who hadn’t, and the ridiculous omertá of the student body ensured he’d get no help from us, so he just canceled the entire test.
I have thought back on this many times, rehearsing in my head what I should have said when the teacher levelled his accusatory gaze at me. I have imagined a dozen different ways I could have redeemed my honour with and without directly naming names. But I now realize that my real should-have-spoken-up moment was when that first cheater started. I should have called him out at that moment, and warned him that he should not rely on the rest of us keeping quiet to protect him from cheating us.
But I didn’t. I didn’t want to look like the jerk. And so I let him, and the others, get away with it. Very much at my own expense. It still makes me angry when I think of that.
The lessons I learned, and have to keep learning, are that there's a big difference between looking like the jerk and being the jerk. And that it's very, very important to speak up earlier, rather than later, when someone else is being a jerk. Too often, we keep quiet just to keep the peace, to be "polite", or because we figure something is just not our problem.
I often feel like a mansplaining jerk, piping up with "Well, actually..." when some harmfully wrong post comes across my feed. But I feel obliged to do it, because when these things go unanswered, it's like a tacit endorsement that they're okay. And there's a lot of harmfully wrong nonsense circulating around now, becoming the common wisdom because gosh, everyone says so.
I don't pipe up because I want to be taken as an authority, correcting falsehoods and dispensing The Truth. I try to get the facts right as best I can, but I know I can be mistaken, and I try to accept it graciously when someone corrects me. No, the reason I try to speak up is much smaller than that. I don't care if people are convinced by what I say; I just want them to know it's okay to disagree. I know it's scary to be the first to speak up when no one else is.
But it's scarier when no one speaks up at all.