Ahmad S. El-Gendi, Esq.
Diversity & Inclusion Committee // The Briefs // February 2020, Vol. 88 No. 2
An airport can tell you a lot about a place. The moment I landed in Copenhagen, I loved it. It was just a stopover on my way back from Egypt, so I never actually left the airport, but it was hard to leave with anything but a good impression when the first thing to greet my eyes was the glistening, immaculately clean hardwood floors in pristine condition. But that’s not why Copenhagen has a special place in my heart (although I do have a thing for hardwood floors).
It was on my way to use the waste closet that I saw it (i.e., restroom, but be honest, waste closet is a much better term). There was a sign hanging by the doorway that read, “Not All Disabilities Are Visible.” Brilliant. We all know that not all disabilities are visible, but we forget. As an interesting aside, the word for human in Arabic (“insan”) is derived from the same root as the word for forgetful; and we are certainly a forgetful species. That’s why I found it so refreshing to read the Copenhagen sign.
Because the next time the New Yorker in me fanned the flames of my frustrations as I waited for the opportune moment to walk past the person walking dreadfully slow in front of me, I might be reminded that maybe that person in front of me has a disability, or is depressed. The next time someone asked me whether I knew what time it was as we both stood aside an oversized clock, I might be reminded that the person asking may have trouble seeing, rather than impatiently assuming they were too lazy to look around. But those reminders to myself are not to pity those with a disability but, rather, to be aware of unspoken factors that could help me understand a situation better and act accordingly. In fact, I was recently reminded that what people often perceive as a disadvantage can actually be an advantage. I was at a high school graduation celebrating a member of our local youth group when I heard a short but powerful speech. The valedictorian was a promising young woman who described growing up with learning disabilities and dealing with mental illnesses, including depression, for most of her life. Yet, she persevered not just to graduate, but to do so at the top of her class! Amazing.
That’s why I loved the Copenhagen sign. Because it did the thing so many of us don’t do; it spoke the words unspoken. These meanings between the lines of life’s script matter immensely regardless of whether you are treating someone with deference because you don’t know whether they have latent physical limitations, or you are being patient with a student that may be dealing with dark days but is destined to rise to the top.
We were taught at a young age that if we don’t have anything nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all. But what we weren’t taught is that life’s circumstances are often very complex and difficult to crystallize into words. We weren’t taught that if we don’t take the time to accurately distill our thoughts and feelings into words, we run the risk of miscommunicating within ourselves and with others. This miscommunication often causes the thoughts and attitudes harbored beneath the permeable surface of our conscious mind to unintentionally grow into implicit biases and paradigms of the world built on faulty foundations that could have been avoided if only we took the time and had the courage to express the words that usually go unspoken.
The Maradona Paradox
The next time I realized the power of words unspoken was when I was at a presentation on EQ, otherwise known as emotional intelligence (there’s your buzzword for the day). The speaker told a story about how the coach of Argentina faced public scrutiny when he made soccer phenom [Diego] Maradona team captain.
It wasn’t a question of skill, because Maradona’s skill was largely unmatched at the time; you know he is good if he reached one name status. The problem was that Maradona had some personal issues, including substance abuse, which made many people feel that he was unfit to be a role model as the captain of the soccer team that so many youth would look up to and follow.
Even as a novice soccer fan, I can attest to the influence soccer stars have over their followers. Basketball fans might buy their favorite players’ jerseys, but soccer fans name their kids after them. Knowing the kind of unyielding influence these players have, it was understandable to me that parents would be outraged at Maradona being named captain. How could you effectively appoint someone with widely known character flaws as the role model for an entire nation and beyond?
When asked in an interview how the coach could make a decision that would negatively affect the upbringing of so many children, the coach explained, “[b]ecause that’s not my job. My job is to win games, not to raise children; that is the parents’ job. When I put the captain’s band on Maradona’s arm, he scores more goals and we win more games. That is my job.”
The coach’s response caught me off guard. In my mind I had already condemned him for making an irresponsible decision to make Maradona captain. And it’s not that the coach’s response changed my mind on whether Maradona should have been made captain, but it made me understand the coach and his decision better. To me, the well-being of the youth is of utmost importance. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have made Maradona captain (and that’s probably why I’m not the coach of the Argentina soccer club).
But truth be told, the coach’s argument was a strong one. He was being paid quite handsomely to win soccer games. Asking him to do something that undermined this goal would be asking him to do something that is seemingly unethical in its own right. Do you make Maradona captain and set a bad example for the youth, or fail to do so knowing that you’re not doing your job? The coach’s response usually gets filed in the words unspoken folder in our click-happy society that is increasingly devoid of meaningful conversations on controversial topics. By hearing the coach’s side of the story, I understood where he was coming from. Although I still do not agree with his decision, I respect and understand it. In the wise words of Abraham Lincoln, “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.”
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Another enlightening moment I had that made me realize the power of words unspoken occurred during an implicit bias training that I attended. There was a prosecutor whose convictions were clearly harsher on minorities, as demonstrated by a comprehensive data collection and study conducted by esteemed journalists. Looking at the numbers, the results seemed clear. The prosecutor was a racist.
At least, that’s the verdict the audience at the training came to at an unsettling speed. But the verdict didn’t seem so clear to me after hearing the underlying facts. There was one fact in particular that I was hung up on: the prosecutor’s Facebook page looked like the United Nations. In other words, it was filled with minority friends. And trust me, I’m not talking about the “I can’t be racist because I had a black friend in grade school” defense. In this case, the prosecutor’s minority friends were more than token acquaintances; they vigorously vouched for her.
This fact made this a troubling case for me. In the world of “civil” lawsuits, cases usually only have to be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning you are more than halfway sure of the verdict. But in the criminal world, you must prove allegations beyond any and all reasonable doubts. That makes sense since if you are going to do something as serious as taking away someone’s freedom, you’d better be sure the charges against them are valid. The implicit insinuations and express allegations of racism against the prosecutor were serious charges, and I had a reasonable doubt that she was guilty.
As the journalists rolled out more facts, I learned my Spidey Senses were tingling for a reason. It turns out that the prosecutor was a people pleaser to the extreme. She had disciplinarian, militaristic parents and was always trying to gain their approval. This fact was particularly relevant because the prosecutor’s direct supervisor and the judge in front of whom she tried the most cases had a demonstrated bias against minorities, according to the journalistic data and study.
Now the facts made sense to me. Trickle down racism. If we take version A of the story (i.e., the prosecutor is racist), we have a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t make sense. Why would the prosecutor’s minority friends vouch for her? More importantly, why were they such good friends in the first place if the prosecutor genuinely didn’t like people of color? It is one thing to have a minority acquaintance as a cover, and another thing altogether to have several genuine friends that have your back.
If you take version B of the story, however, the facts make more sense. The prosecutor wasn’t racist; she was just a people pleaser to a fault. Growing up in a strict household where she rarely (if ever) received approval only exacerbated the problem, causing the prosecutor to fiend for acceptance which, unfortunately for her, meant bringing back tough sentencing against minorities to her biased supervisor and judge.
I wish I could tell you that this story has a happy ending. It doesn’t. I wish others undertook the mental gymnastics and Sherlock Holmes escapades that my strange mind did to exonerate the prosecutor, but they didn’t. The story aired in the papers and the prosecutor quit her job.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the prosecutor didn’t do anything wrong. No matter how much we want to fit in or “do a good job,” there are certain principles we must never bend nor break. Allowing her need to please others to result in unfair convictions was wrong, but labeling the prosecutor a racist when she wasn’t was also wrong. Someone should have addressed the situation with the prosecutor privately and given her the chance to change instead of publicly shaming her based on a faulty assessment of the facts, which resulted in the prosecutor losing her livelihood.
Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Guilt
Speaking a lot is a problem. I should know; I’m an attorney. But sometimes not speaking at all is the problem. Not listening through the end of a discussion is the problem. Not thinking through the end of a thought is the problem. These failed departures and early exits land us in predicaments that we don’t even realize.
It is hard to capture the essence of words unspoken better than
Lupe Fiasco did in his song “Words I Never Said”:
I think that all the silence is worse than all the violence
Fear is such a weak emotion that’s why I despise it
We scared of almost everything, afraid to even tell the truth
So scared of what you think of me,
I’m scared of even telling you
Sometimes I’m like the only person I feel safe to tell it to
I’m locked inside a cell in me,
I know that there’s a jail in you
Consider this your bailing out,
so take a breath, inhale a few
My screams is finally getting free,
my thoughts is finally yelling through.
There are plenty of reasons people don’t speak the words that usually go unspoken. Many times, it is uncomfortable to say something. Other times we are impatient and hasty. And sometimes we just don’t know what to say. The problem with words unspoken is that they lie on a faulty foundation.
We assume that we are saving ourselves and others trouble by remaining silent. But remaining silent and letting things go are not the same thing. In the words of William James, “wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.” A critical component of that wisdom is understanding how and when to articulate one’s thoughts and feelings.
Just like clothes shoved in a closet do not make a clean room, words unspoken do not make a clean conscience. Words unspoken do not solve problems; they cause trivial disagreements to grow into insurmountable oceans between loved ones. Words unspoken do not heal hearts; they are the reason they remain broken.
Ahmad S. El-Gendi, Esq., is an associate at Lowndes Law, P.A., focusing on intellectual property and commercial litigation, including, copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and licensing. He is chair of the OCBA Diversity & Inclusion Committee (with co-chair Jill Davis). He has been a member of the OCBA since 2015.