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In Politics, Silence Isn’t Neutrality

Outcomes Over Feelings

(Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Politics: Beginning to Care

I began to care about politics last April. In April, my brother and one of my sisters made their case for Bernie Sanders. They were so compelling, I was stunned to realize that voters could seek more than either main U.S. political party willingly offered.

A couple of months later, the Associated Press called the Democratic primary for Hillary Clinton. It used (wildly undemocratic) superdelegates’ pledged votes to make its call. It did so the day before I was scheduled to cast my California vote.

I left the Democratic party a few days later. I wasn’t interested in a party that told me what I wanted without bothering to listen to me.

In July and August of last year, I struggled to express the political phenomena I witnessed. I’d never cared about politics before, so I could see much more than I could articulate.

Finding the Words

My husband encouraged me to find my political vocabulary. He’d found his own as an American Studies major a couple decades ago. I’d teased him repeatedly for it: “You needed to fork over tens of thousands of dollars to find a vocabulary? Great investment!” (Yes, I was a jerk.)

I created a new blog devoted to learning to speak Politics. Reading about politics could only take me so far, I saw soon after caring about politics. To make deeper connections with my country’s political landscape, I needed to learn to speak Politics. I named my new blog Learning to Speak Politics since that was exactly what I was trying to do.

In my inaugural post, I wrote:

I failed to appreciate that the only way to learn to express myself–and to build my ability to see clearly enough to do so–was to practice. To work on finding words for the patterns I witnessed, and to begin expressing them with the understanding I’d likely get it wrong. Often.

Despite being clear I was learning to speak Politics, I received several comments along the lines of, “This didn’t work for me” and “This was actually a little persuasive!” Long accustomed to Vox and Salon telling them exactly what to think, some readers believed my goal in writing must be to persuade them.

I didn’t care much about persuading. Like my blog’s title highlighted, I was learning how to articulate the disturbing patterns I witnessed. I did so in hopes of someday extending what I learned to take political action.

Finding the words has proven much more difficult and time-consuming than I expected.

Empathy Isn’t Everything

Last week, one of the most thoughtful, empathetic people I know broke my heart with a post. The author explained that activists should be able to persuade others without referencing things like race, sex, or age. Basically, the author–misunderstanding silence on these points as neutrality– suggested that activists should be able to describe systemic failures without explicitly referencing anything suggesting systemic privilege.

I’ll talk about anything face to face, but I normally skip past posts like these online. The person online who’s failed to access or internalize the lessons of thousands of eloquent #BlackLivesMatter activists, intersectional feminists, and millennials made destitute by their elders’ policies isn’t going to be swayed by my faltering noob words.

I couldn’t ignore this particular post, though. Day after day after day, I see relatively affluent people ignoring any evidence that they have benefited at other people’s expense. They remain silent on politics, except to say, “There’s some truth in every position (and you’re the problem if you see otherwise)!” I’ve come to expect this.

Silence: Not Neutrality

To see it from this writer filled me with twin frustration and hopelessness. If this particularly empathetic person couldn’t be motivated to explore systemic injustice, I doubted anyone else would even try.

I unskillfully let its poster know what I thought about quiet, not-actually-neutral “neutrality.” Such not-neutral silence helps maintain the status quo, propping up powerful people at the expense of the powerless. It helps to silence abused partners, Palestinians crushed by the mighty Israeli state, brown-skinned American people who rightfully fear law enforcement officers, North Dakota #NoDAPL water protectors being shot by militarized police, and Jewish socialists who run against the wishes of the mighty Democratic machine. These not-so-neutral words to might translate to, “I am not saying overtly unkind things; therefore, I am being good.”

To that, I’d offer a single illuminating sentence from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Taylor illustrates the problem of systemic racism with these words, “Most importantly, it is the outcome that matters, not the intentions of the individual involved.”

I didn’t offer Taylor’s words last week. I hadn’t read them yet.

Frustrated and exhausted after a child-inspired sleepless night, I tapped out my heated anti-“neutrality” response on my phone at 6 a.m. in a grocery store parking lot.

Hurt but receptive, the poster replied that my impassioned response might be deserved, if I was right. “What you deserve?” I wanted to scream. “How are you making this about your feelings, when systemic injustice kills thousands of Americans annually, undeserved?” All the same, I was glad for the reply, an indication hope might not be misguided.

Withholding Blessings

When I began learning to speak Politics five months ago, I had no idea where the journey would take me. I didn’t know what I’d learn, or if I’d learn anything at all. I still wanted to try.

I’m eminently more able to speak Politics now than I was five months ago. I’m not bragging. I’ve still got years of noobdom ahead of me.

The journey’s been magnificent. I can now more easily see relationships between things that would have seemed unrelated a year ago. Sometimes, I can even articulate them!  In olden days, I’d often explain that I didn’t like to talk about politics. I didn’t dare talk about such things, not understanding how my silence empowered those who are already powerful.

Now I understand the devastation in the words, “I don’t like talking about politics.” They effectively translate to, “Folks in power, I give you my blessing to do whatever you wish, to whomever you wish!” Folks in power no longer have my passive blessing. I no longer believe they do what’s good for me or those I love. They do what’s good for them, and will keep doing so as long as relatively powerful U.S. citizens continue skirting their obligation to speak out against systemic injustice.

“We’re on the same side!” exclaim those among my friends who haven’t yet tried speaking Politics (beyond parroting talking points from the latest Huffington Post articles). “Why would you argue with me?!”

I wish they could see that the answer is in the question. Having not yet begun to try speaking Politics, they can’t yet begin to fathom that their silence isn’t actually neutral at all.  If they would only try speaking and caring more for others’ lives than the possibility that they might speak ineloquently, there might be hope for us all.

Written by Deborah Bryan

Deborah Bryan

Deborah Bryan grew up poor and afraid. She has a pretty good life now, but can't rest easy until everyone, everywhere, is fed, sheltered, and free from harm. Deborah is a Contributor to Progressive Army.

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