Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Every Day Activism: Speak up!

First off, I have to admit that this topic is so terrifying to me that I am having trouble trying to appropriately form this blog post.

The thing is, what I am about to suggest is so mundane, and so obvious, that I am wondering why I feel such fear. And I know why. Its the same fear I've felt, and I'm sure many others feel, when they are about to speak their mind about a topic or course of action they know will probably be unpopular.

I keep telling myself that this blog has a small readership, that most people will be sympathetic to what I'm about to say. But still, I'm feeling slightly queasy, and I'm finding I'm using the backspace button a little more than usual.

And all I want to say is, that I encourage everyone to be brave enough to look their friends and family in the eye and say, "That's not funny."

"What's not funny?" you may ask. Oh my goodness, a myriad of things. I feel like I have been asked to be complicit to hateful speech dealing with class, race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, differently-abled people, etc. ad nauseum. Yes, until I get sick. I cannot count the times when all I wanted to do is look at some one and say, "That's not funny" and have been stricken to my very core with absolute dread about what the consequences may be.

For example, I was hanging out with some acquaintances just last week, and one was retelling a story about how he informed a female student that the only thing she was qualified to do was be a prostitute. I was outraged. I wanted to just lay into this guy. How dare he, as a person who is supposed to be encouraging this child, insinuate to her that the only thing she was good for was for some one to pay her to have sex? This person who was supposed to be teaching her, and guiding her, and opening intellectual doors for her? This person, who has age, experience, and education-- who should know that some people have difficulty learning things the way the majority of us do-- how could he tell her that? Instead, my eyes got wide, and I said "You did not!" And the other people around us continued to joke and laugh about it-- and I just... stood there, because I was afraid. I didn't used to be so scared of telling people what I thought, but that was before I realized that people generally don't like their opinions being questioned-- and often will react violently if some one dares to do so. I have lost friends, been called various names, and been made to feel like I was wrong for wanting to protect people, for believing that everyone is flesh and blood and has feelings like me. Furthermore, I have been chastised by family and friends who were embarrassed when I felt the need to point out that someone was being a bigot. Getting folks to think about why we feel fearful when confronting hateful speech, or why we defend the speakers is basically the goal of this post. Why are we so afraid of offending those who clearly mean to cause offense to others?

I'm just speaking from personal experiences, but I think there is a couple of reasons why intelligent folk will all stand around and listen to bigoted speech and ideas. (You may notice that a lot of the examples that I am about to talk about deal with sexist speech/ideas. I tend to give examples of the speech that hurts me personally, because I can best speak to that experience.) Firstly, I think people who say "shocking" things are seen as cool and edgy. They don't feel constrained by the manners that permeate polite society. Maybe it seems they are just saying "what everyone else is thinking". Secondly, I think we're afraid of seeming too "sensitive". Its becoming less socially acceptable to be empathetic. Thirdly, we don't want to become targets ourselves.

To address the first issue, I've got news for all of you-- picking on people who have less privilege than you do isn't really all that edgy-- its in fact just taking a crack at easy prey. Its reinforcing old stereotypes-- dare I say it, its backwards thinking. Example: going to a rally for Hillary Clinton with a sign that reads "Iron my shirt." That's not edgy, my friends! That's not gutsy, that does not take courage. All that takes is a poster board, a marker, and an ideology that says that women should not have power, they should be at home taking care of men, and their children.

Addressing the second and third issues, by not saying anything, by not disagreeing with some one when they say something you know to be degrading, humilating and damaging to another group of human beings, you are being complicit with the ideas being espoused. And this is what happens, y'all. One person says something that's hateful and degrading. And then the people around them laugh and joke-- and validate that person's opinion. If a person's idea about the world is never challenged by those closest to him or her, what incentive does he or she have to change? If those who disagree are seen as the "other", people outside this persons realm of influence, its easier for the speaker to believe that their opinion is acceptable. And sometimes that opinion is really quite dangerous. You would probably hesitate to become friends with a convicted rapist, but would you sit idly by a friend wearing a Its not Rape; Its Suprise Sex! t-shirt?

It may be easy to say, its just a t-shirt! Its a free country! People have the right to say what they want! But then you have become complicit to the idea that rape victims shouldn't complain about being raped. "Its just suprise sex! Who doesn't like surprises? Its almost like the rapist gave the victim a gift!" If that type of thinking doesn't offend you, then I don't really know if I want to be talking to you. But if it does, do you want to sit idly by without adding your opinion to the dialog?

And I know we all have a friend who makes jokes that are of a questionable content, and how easy it is to make excuses for that person. Oh, dont' mind him/her, that's just the way he/she is! S/he's just joking! Its nothing personal!

Unfortunately, sometimes it feels very personal. And the more excuses we make for that friend of ours, the one that likes to tell the racist jokes, or thumps their wrists limply against their chest while saying "Retard!" or who emulates a lisp when quoting homosexuals, the more we excuse bigoted world views.

I feel I have more to say on this matter, but I'm going to leave it here for now. I realize that I have rambled on without offering any sort of advice, but the thing is, I don't know, I am still struggling with this problem. Perhaps I can revisit this issue later with a clearer idea of how to combat the fear of revealing your inner activist.

1 comment:

Retief said...

I find that the political and the personal dynamic is the same; the right thing to have said comes to me far too late. The good old esprit de l'escalier strikes whether it's in activism or plain old conversation.