The State of the Union address can often feel like a cheer-fest. For the most part, each sentence is met with applause. It seems like it might be a good workout for many attendees: They’re on their feet giving standing ovations every couple of minutes, like they’re doing a very fancy form of squats.
But last night, there was one moment in which the audience met a sentence obviously intended to be an applause line with profound silence instead.
As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I’ve prohibited torture, [applause] and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained [applause]. It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world [applause]. It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims — the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace [SILENCE]. That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender [applause]. We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer [applause].
As you can see, in the middle of an applause-sandwich, when the president referred to this country’s commitment to “reject[ing] offensive stereotypes of Muslims,” the room fell silent. The discomfort was palpable. It wasn’t that applause was tepid; there was no applause at all.
How is it that not even a single one of the self-identified progressive Democrats in the room was willing to express their approval of the president’s call to reject offensive stereotypes of a group of people?
It wasn’t as if he’d advocated for anything so “controversial” as welcoming Muslims as equal members of the American community, or standing up against discrimination. (And yes, I use the word “controversial” sarcastically. In a political democracy, there shouldn’t be any hesitancy on those points, whether they refer to a particular religious group as a whole or its individual members, each of whom has a varying relationship—or lack thereof—with their religion and its institutions.)
And yet, for every member of that audience—consisting of all members of Congress, the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, and many other honored guests—the humble notion of rejecting offensive stereotypes didn’t garner a single clap.
I do not have a particular, greater point to make about this moment. But I wanted to point it out, so that we at least mark it. I didn’t want to stay silent about this curious, troubling silence; one layer of silencing is surely enough.