On Participation and Public Life

The youth leader gives some upbeat directions to the group on setting up the chairs for the program. I begin to pull the stacking chairs apart, finally feeling like I have a reason to be there. A large boy a year older than me comes over and takes the chair from my hands, barely meeting my eyes.

“No, I’ve got it,” I say. He gives a short chuckle and leaves me there empty handed.

I walk back to the stack of chairs and grab another. Another boy walks over and takes it with a condescending smile.

“I’ve got it,” I repeat, a bit desperately. Again, a short chuckle. Again, I stand empty handed, alone, and useless. I feel the fear creeping back in. I am 12 years old.

You see, when I was young, I was very shy. I had developed a fear of strangers and acquaintances over the years. It may have had to do with the bullying I dealt with in elementary school; I have always been a nerd. (My dear young people, being a nerd has not always been cool.)

But this post is not about my preteen struggles with social anxiety.

It is, instead, about how we allow certain categories of society to participate socially.

This was only my first experience with this particular slant of exclusion. I was still young, after all. Like many girls my age, I was taught that I could do anything I wanted, as long as I worked hard. Perhaps even become the first female President of the United States. Oh, women of my generation, do you recognize this message, even the words and phrasing I’ve used to state it? Did you, like me, find it strange that it even had to be said, when you were a young girl?

I don’t find it strange anymore.

These boys did not mean any harm, of course. We call this type of gendered interaction “chivalry,” and many loudly lament its downfall. These boys were taught to carry things for girls (perhaps, though, only for certain kinds of girls, but that is a subject for another essay). I, however, was not taught to let boys carry things for me, as young ladies in the true Age of Chivalry learned. I was supposed to be able to do anything I wanted, and I wanted to carry the damn chairs. I learned through experience that sometimes it’s OK to let people do things for me because it makes them feel better, even if I don’t need help.

Later, I had to learn yet another lesson: I don’t always have to make the other person feel better, especially if it means I feel worse as a result.

As a painfully shy 12 year old, this “chivalrous” interaction made me feel much, much worse. I was not allowed to participate in setting up, and I was much too anxious to make friends, and so I did not participate at all. I hid as best I could, most of the time. In a book, in a tree, walking around as though I had somewhere to go. I was fully excluded. How silly it seems, in retrospect, and how ruinous at the time.

I began to learn, over the next few years, the categories of interaction for which I would receive  censure or shunning from authority figures and peers – manual labor, questioning the premises of school curricula, questioning religious apologia, loud laughter, acting out in class, or talking about science fiction (for which I would be quizzed incessantly to determine whether or not I was a “true fan”). I began to see gendered expectations, but I did not know what to make of them. Boys questioned, acted out, moved heavy things, and laughed uproariously and were encouraged or, at worst, tolerated with amused exasperation. If we tried, we girls, we soon felt the consequences: shunning, mocking, or skepticism. (Manly – bitchy – faking it – wants attention – so annoying – )

These days, I get the most resistance from elsewhere: asserting political opinions. It’s not polite, you see.

But I didn’t really see, not until recently. Why, I wondered, as I spent more and more time in the real world after college, why would it be impolite? Why does it seem as though no one will talk to me about politics? They must be talking to someone about it. It’s clearly important in public life. I had only a few friends that would talk to me about the issues, and even then, it was taboo to disagree.

I learned from my husband about the political opinions of men we knew. About their prejudices. All these things that they would not share with me, they would share with him. Meanwhile, they asked me about hobbies, trips, friends, and family.

What am I missing? I wonder. Why are people telling me not to talk about it? There were unspoken rules that eventually became spoken – that you don’t talk about politics at gatherings, or on Facebook, or ever, ever, ever. It’s not the time – it’s never the time – no need to stir up trouble in relationships. After all, you’re sure to offend someone.

Talking to a friend the other day, we remarked on how afraid we were to make any kind of political statement in this election cycle, especially on Facebook. Someone will jump all over you either way, we sighed with wide eyes, both somewhat dumbstruck, I believe, at the vitriol we’ve witnessed.

I kept thinking about this conversation later. Some people were speaking up, after all.

And then comprehension dawned on me slowly and painfully – why I was afraid.

Women are supposed to share pictures of puppies and babies, not political opinions. Political opinions offend people. Good women are not supposed to offend people. That’s not kind and nurturing. That’s not good for the family. Many female politicians experience this kind of backlash. The ones whose likeability numbers and favorables stay highest are the ones that put their families at the front and center of their image and their rhetoric. Stay on message. Stay positive.

But if we give in to this pressure, we are excluded from public life. We may vote, if we wish, and we may keep our ballots to ourselves. We wield no further influence or power. We have no stronger voice.

So many admirable women are doing it anyway, and the backlash is tangible. But they seem to glow with strength, if only in my imagination.

I have given into this pressure for a long time, but there is no way to be whole if I do not live a public life as well as a private one. Ultimately, I am privileged enough to make this decision one way or the other.

Perhaps the largest part of my problem is that I have this perception that I will damage a relationship by disagreeing. But I have come to believe that this does not need to be the case. After all, I disagree with almost every friend and family member I have on at least one large issue, but I still love them with all my heart. I would die for my husband, even though he hates – or firmly dislikes, perhaps – Hillary Clinton, whereas I voted enthusiastically for her in the Democratic primary. My goodness, how frightened I have been to say that. I believe out of the hundreds of people on my friends list, there may only be two other people who are enthusiastically pro-Hillary. (Let’s talk about drones, some time, though, shall we? I can’t even agree with my candidate on every issue.)

But damage to a relationship does not come from disagreement. It comes from incivility and a refusal to try to understand where the other person is coming from, and that comes from fear. Compassion is not avoiding disagreement. It is leaning into it, seeking out its root, understanding it more fully. Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia were good friends before Scalia’s recent passing – brilliant, caustic people who believed that the political opinions of the other were wrong in every conceivable sense, but still friends. I understand that friendship. I want friendships like that. I want Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson friendships.

The compassionate thing for me to do now is to live as a whole person, a little more fearlessly, to speak my mind with love, and to feel uncomfortable sometimes, to be challenged sometimes. I am, in fact, pretty excited to ask what other people think about important issues, especially when I don’t quite know what I think about those issues myself.

I want my friends and family to know that I want to hear what you think. I want to hear you out. As long as you’re ready to be challenged and to hear me out. I will certainly disagree with you – I have yet to meet a person I agree with completely – but I believe I’ve learned to disagree in a loving and respectful way. Perhaps we can put some love and respect back into the political discourse, instead of reserving all of our love and respect for the private sphere.