How casually we hate, but why?

Today my students kept asking me if I’d heard about the “whole gorilla thing.”  Almost immediately, as soon as anyone mentioned it, someone else would say, “that mom should have all her kids taken away.”  I would simply respond, “let’s trust local law enforcement to do their job,” and move the conversation onward.

But seriously.  Woah.  What is going on here?

I cannot move five feet, virtually or in real life, without running into someone who has already decided that a complete stranger deserves to have her family pulled apart, for a tragedy they didn’t personally experience and could not possibly fully understand.  I have to wonder what in the world we’re getting from this as a society, that we feel the need to execute this stranger and her family when we have to know we don’t have all the facts.

It’s gotten to the point that I’ve pulled the plug on Facebook.  For the meanwhile, I’ll continue posting there, but I refuse to read the news feed.  It was bad enough seeing the non-stop barrage of “you’re an idiot if you’re voting for this person” posts, followed by the “if you really love your friends you’ll share this” posts, and the “only stupid people like (whatever)” posts.  Now, to top it off, there doesn’t seem to be a single person alive who doesn’t have a vehemently held belief that either the zoo, or the mother, or both the zoo and the mother deserve to be prosecuted within an inch of their lives.

I deal with enough hatred on a daily basis without opening a door to allow more in, so sorry, Facebook, I’m gonna have to let the dead bury the dead on this one.  (Or let the judgmental bury the judgmental, whatever).  You’ll have to find another way to guilt me into buying your various multi-level-marketing products or to invite me to your parties that I can’t attend because I live out of state and am to anti-social to ever go anyway.

But back to the subject at hand:  why crucify total strangers over a situation we can’t possibly understand?

There are a lot of things to consider.  First, there’s the fact that women in the United States are incapable of raising their children properly.  No matter what choices a woman makes (breastfeed or bottle?  Cloth or disposable diaper?  Back to sleep or side?  Bassinett or crib or co sleep?  Start on solids or puree?  Veggies first or meats or grains?  TV or no TV?) there is literally no right choice to be made.  A large segment of the population is waiting to tell you how you’re ruining your kid, often very loudly and obnoxiously to your face in the store even though you are total strangers.

So, on the one hand, mother-shaming out of the blue to total strangers in a very real and hurtful way is a national past-time.  So mother-shaming this particular mother is just like winning the mommy-guilt lottery.  This is the Moby Dick of mommy-shaming moments, how could we POSSIBLY pass it up?

Second, there’s the fact that there’s a huge segment of the population who distrusts any authority figures and can’t wait to blame them for handling things wrong.  In some cases, like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray’s death, there’s both good reason to distrust the authorities as well as evidence that perhaps they weren’t entirely wrong.  In other cases, like the constant malingering belief that Barack Obama is going to steal your guns and impregnate your teenage daughters just to forcibly abort their babies, there’s not a lot of good evidence but the hatred remains.  So who WOULDN’T want to hate on a zoo for killing an innocent animal just to protect a human baby?  I mean, let’s hate on them hardcore!  Even though none of us are animal behaviorists, none of us were there, the video is short and doesn’t show the most violent actions towards the kiddo, we’re obviously anthropomorphizing the gorrilla by describing it as “protective” when we don’t really know how gorilla’s express protectiveness versus possessiveness, etc, let’s just decide to blame the zoo because blaming authority figures is our second favorite past-time right behind mommy shaming.

Then, there’s the fact that everyone loves to feel like their opinion matters.  Me too.  Having an opinion that matters is fun.  Mine matters a lot to me.

But last, and not least, I think we all just want a sacrificial lamb.

Boy, don’t we have a LOT of guilt as a nation?  We do, and we have a lot to feel guilty for.  Most of us enjoy lives of relative luxury, and the news reminds us on a regular basis of all of those people who have less than we do.  The migrants, the refugees of war-torn countries, the people fleeing cities we’re currently bombing the hell out of.  We live these privileged lives and routinely we see the evidence around us that it may not last.  Our place of privilege in the world is threatened constantly:  by our own greed and avirice; by a shaky economy based off of invisible money we don’t understand; by terrorism; by immigration; by jobs being constantly outsourced; by the cost of education skyrocketing while low-skills jobs pay less and less of a living wage; and so on.

We’re terrified.  And in the collective mind, we’re not too far removed from the Judeo-Christian values that say that when society wears a collective stain, it requires a sacrifice.  Sacrifices we’re all too happy to make.  Welfare moms?  Throw those bitches under the bus.  Bankers who are just banking the way society has taught them to?  Slash those golden parachutes.  Politicians doing what we ask them to?  Smear them.  Mothers trying their best?  Shame the hell out of them.  And the gays, and the single parents, and the transsexuals, and the celebrities, and everyone else to.  Whoever the news parades out for a public stoning, we are locked and loaded and ready to cast our own chunks of granite and rotten vegetables at their tear-streaked faces.  And why not?  We’ve got anger and fear to spare, and no-where better to put it.  We’ll put it where the media tells us to.

Harambe shouldn’t have died, we say.  Let’s stone them all.

Only in the midst of all of this, we forget that the world is a place where sometimes bad things happen even though no one meant them to, even though no one may have been able to prevent it.  What we have, most times, isn’t a failure of foresight but a failure of imagination.  Perhaps we could have never known such things would happen, until they’d happen.

As human beings we’re always learning from our mistakes.

Only we live in a society that has become intolerant of mistakes, so we take out our own anger and frustrations at our own failures for whatever sacrifice-of-the-week has been pulled out for us.  The terrorists, the Kardashians, Johnny Depp, who cares?  They made mistakes which we can paint as worse than our own.

Kill ’em all.  Take their kids.  Make them pay.

Anyway, I need out of the big societal rock-throw, so I’ll be stepping away from social media and focusing more on blogging as a way to unwind from my plethora of bad days at work.

Perhaps this is my own way of casting out for a sacrificial lamb.  Who knows.

All I can say is that the more I see people polarized- willingly, gleefully polarized- the less willing I am to participate in a society that thrives off of division, instead of unity and understanding.

As my students would say, “byeeeeee Felicia.”

Heh.

Let’s REALLY talk about institutionalized abuses.

So yesterday I wrote a blog post which I worked very hard on.  I tried to compassionately ask that men please just listen to the women sharing their stories right now, and then I told my OWN story in order to illustrate a culture of misogyny that I had experienced.  I only had one sentence in the entire blog post which made a generalization about the male experience, and it was “and men are trained that it is okay to blame us, because their privilege is more important than our rights.”

Did I say that all men abuse women?

NO.

Did I say that all men are evil?

NO.

Did I even say that all men are complicit?

NO.

What did I say?  I said that society, as a whole, has a different attitude towards men than women.  Men are given license, by society, to blame women for the way in which women are treated by men.  I was very deliberate in not having gone any further than that and stopping my claims there.  Partly, because a blog post should only ever be so long; but, mostly because I understood that no matter what an individual writer says, when you’re writing about an issue which is broadly in the media people tend to react to the issue itself instead of your words.

I immediately received a personal backlash.

The thrust of the arguments which I had with several men, both privately and publicly, is that it is wrong for women to make generalizations about men.  Making those generalizations weakens women’s argument, puts men on the defensive, makes dialogue impossible, and so forth.

I was forced, then, to make a choice:  To either continue to restate my actual argument which necessitated a generalization, or to capitulate.

Why does the argument necessitate a generalization?

Let me take you to a moment in Guadalajara Mexico,when I was cornered by a police-man on a motorcycle.  My gut clenches and I am looking for any avenue of escape, but there is none.  Why am I looking for an avenue of escape?  Because the woman I am staying with, a native of the city, says that police men are known to rape white girls when they are on Spring Break.

She made a generalization, didn’t she?  But she made one because the generalization was necessary.  Sure, she could say, “some policemen have”, but that is still general.  Or she could say “there are a hundred known cases of”, but that is actually too clinical to be effective.  The problem that she is addressing, that she is trying to communicate to me, is one that is endemic in the way the policemen of that city operate.  To address an endemic injustice, one MUST use language that encapsulates the system.  The system of police, in that case, which is based summed up in the statement “policemen are known to rape.”

Or, let’s look at the civil rights movement.  In his infamous “I have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, said, “Instead of honoring this obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.”  This is literally the first of many generalizations that the good Dr. made in his speech.

Okay, men, go dig him up from his grave and explain that making generalizations weakens a person’s argument.

Sometimes, when you are talking about systemic injustices that are institutionalized in the very way in which society operates, generalizations are all you have left.  When a black person talks about their experiences, generally, with white society, do we accuse them of being prejudiced against white people?

See, the #YesAllWomen movement has been characterized as being sexist in the way that generalizations against race are racist.  There’s a difference, though, between being racist and addressing systemic injustices that are based on race.  When someone says “all black people are lazy”, they are being a racist.  When a black person says, “white people are better rewarded by the academic system”, they are simply pointing out an injustice which society ignores, an injustice which is documented and undeniable.

When women say, “men are given permission to silence women who speak up about abuse by slut-shaming them or making them responsible for their own mistreatment”, women are simply pointing out a systemic injustice in society which, guess what!  Is documented and undeniable.  Sociologists have been puzzling over issues such as these for decades, and it is undeniable- empirically, scientifically undeniable-that there is a double standard in society.

So I will ask again that men listen to women address these injustices with open ears, open eyes, an open heart, and a closed mouth.

Poor people lack integrity?

Often times, I’ll look back on my day  of work and feel like I’m just so insanely lucky to have my job.  But sometimes, just sometimes, I have more of a “WTF?!?!” feeling about my job.  Today is a “WTF, JOB” day, but only because of one writer.  She had a sort of rambling-incoherent essay about integrity and society which she had worked really hard to make more organized.  We tip-toed through it talking about the places where she didn’t have enough evidence to stake her claims and how she could have more of a central focus.  Inasmuch as that is concerned, she wasn’t so different from any other student.

No, what turned my stomach was in her conclusion, where she was talking about how society seems to reward bad behavior, and she threw in an aside about how lazy people are rewarded with food stamps and WIC.  Her teacher had written, in the margin, “lazy children and babies?”, a sentiment which I reflexively backed.  The student responded that she wasn’t really sure why her teacher had made that comment, and then flipped the paper over to show me a bit of a rant that said teacher had made about the working poor, which asked rather bluntly, “if a single mom works two part time jobs and still needs WIC & food stamps, how many jobs should she get?”

So the student and I talked briefly about the plight of the working poor, and I told her that if she wanted to make the argument that society rewards bad behavior she’d have to get another example, “if not because you understand what I’m saying, because your teacher clearly doesn’t think your argument is sound.”

I asked her if she thought that bankers who sold toxic mortgages being rewarded with cushy early retirement deals while the government bailed out their companies was a good example of what she meant.

“WHAT?”

I explained again.  “Do you think that they acted without integrity and were rewarded?”

The student blinked slowly.  “I don’t know.  What are you even talking about?  That’s not like, you know, a real thing that happened.”

I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears.  “Yes, yes it is.  Please google ‘toxic mortgage’ and read the news articles that come up.  It happened a few years ago but we still feel the effects of it today.  You’re younger than me, but you were old enough to be paying attention to the news during the recession…”

“It wasn’t, like, a real recession.”

“My family moved from Indiana to Yakima because there were no jobs.  Like, no jobs.  There was a place that was hiring twenty people and three thousand people applied.  If that isn’t a real recession, I don’t know what is.”

“But it was like not the bankers fault,” the girl said, “if it really was…”

“Please, just look it up,” I said, thinking that it sure as hell wasn’t the fault of babies on WIC.

But it left me feeling incredibly unsettled, this reflexive hatred towards poor people.  Only slightly less unsettling was the defensive trust of the rich.  Yet, what stuck with me was the instinctive way that she equated being poor with having no integrity, without flinching, assuming without having anything to base her argument on that anyone reading it would agree.  As if the final nail in the coffin when arguing that today’s society has lost its moral compass would be the fact that we feed babies and children whose parents cannot get by.

I don’t know, perhaps this is another sign of my own biases getting in the way of my better judgment, as I almost instantly wanted to tap out of the consultation and take up smoking just to burn off the stress.  Yet I cannot, even now, nine hours later, easily shake the sourness in my stomach and get on with life.  How is it that there is an entire population of our country that equate poverty with sin just as simply as I equate the sky with the color blue?  Yet, there is evidence that the sky is blue every day.

What, exactly, is the evidence that poor people are bad?

Where does that message even come from?

I would think that if you were going to write a essay about the duplicitous nature of our society, the better argument would be the fact that our government is more prone to cut food stamps than they are to cut subsidies to corporations, and that human life holds less sacredness than capitalism.

Yet, from the look in that girl’s eyes, I’m the one who isn’t really in touch with reality.

Heh.

Honestly, I’m not sure that reality is something I want to get my hands on these days.

Let’s talk about healthcare, please.

I support the Affordable Care Act because I believe it will help our Gross Domestic Profit go up, and because I believe in social justice.  Let’s talk about it.

I spent a year working as the site supervisor for a homeless shelter, and then a year and a half as a “float” between several residential mental health facilities, so I’ve seen my share of people who have no choice but to rely on the state.  Any time an issue about state benefits come up, my mind immediately flashes back to my experiences there and I judge everything I hear not of how it affects me personally, but how it would change the situation for the people I have served.

Please, give me a few moments of your time.

Working with the homeless, I saw a side of the mental health industry that was chilling.  A large proportion of the guests at the homeless shelter had mental health problems.  Bipolar syndrome was a constant theme.  Why?  Because it, like schizophrenia, tends to manifest in adulthood rather than childhood.  The first symptoms don’t show up until someone is in their mid-twenties or later.  If you’re in college, in an office job, or in another supportive environment where you have a lot of hands-on supervision when the symptoms start to show, you have a good chance of being referred to help before it derails your life.  If, on the other hand, you are flipping burgers or nailing window panes on a factory floor, it’s far more likely that the first “incident” that lands you in front of someone who could help you isn’t going to be mild, it’ll be extreme.  More often than not the outbursts that can characterize mania (or the paranoia of schizophrenia) are misinterpreted as aggression or something more extreme.  There are books, and volumes, and scads, and rants, and epics of information on why it is that poor people with mental health problems seem to inevitably end up in jail or residential treatment for the rest of their lives.  But the truth is the answer is very straightforward:  right now, that’s just what the system is.  If you are poor, the only way you can stay medicated is if you are in jail or residential therapy indefinitely.  That means if you’re in your mid twenties and married with children when you first have an aggressive manic episode on a factory floor, not only is that the only route available to you, but it is the only route available to your family.

Ask yourself if that is just, or even necessary.  Is that the society you want to live in?

Addiction operates in much the same way.  White collar addicts can get chain prescriptions for pain killers, and there are many supports there to act as a barrier between the addict and extreme consequences.  For the poor, reality is again far more harsh.  Unless there is insurance coverage for treatment expenses, chances are treatment will happen when the addict is caught in an illegal action and sent to jail, or their children are taken away and rehab is proscribed by the state as a requirement for reunion.

Is that justice?  Is it necessary?  As the self-ascribed “greatest society”, is that how we should live?

Despite any issues that there may be with the Affordable Care Act, there are a few things it does which are absolutely necessary if there is to be any sense of social justice in the United States.  It makes it so that the poor can have preventative and maintenance mental health care, meaning that problems like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be treated before they become debilitating, and poor people with those illnesses can remain productive members of society and their families are not torn apart.  It also means that people with addictions can be helped before their addiction becomes so severe it becomes a legal matter instead of a personal one.  Even if you have absolutely no interest in those issues as a social justice matter, think about the expense.  How expensive is it to maintain treatment for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia through the jail system and residential programs as opposed to having insurance cover medications?  How expensive is it to treat addiction as a legal matter- court fees, jail costs, state paying for rehab- as opposed to treating it through insurance as a private matter?

The Affordable Care Act isn’t about coddling the poor, it is about saving money, saving lives, and keeping people economically stable and productive instead of burdening society with unnecessary expense and unnecessarily broken people.

If you don’t believe me, go to your nearest residential mental health treatment facility and talk to the people there about how they ended up in that situation.  Hear them talk about how schizophrenia made them homeless and years of going without medication or health care on the streets broke their bodies and caused so many complications they could no longer care for themselves or became suicidal, and the state remanded them to residential care.  Here them talk about how they ended up in jail because they punched their boss but now they know aggression is a symptom of their illness.  “I can’t live without the lorazepam, without it I am violent, but I can’t buy it unless I’m here, so the state says I’m a threat to others.”  Hear their stories, and realize that if we defund the Affordable Care Act, there are only two options open to the very poor who have abnormal mental conditions:  jail, or residential care.  Neither of those options are freedom.

Then ask yourself if that is the society you want to live in.  If you want my generation, and the generation of my children, to send a significant segment of their population to be jailed by the state either literally or with high doses of medication administered several times a day, because their brains are wired differently and we can’t be bothered the expense of keeping them productive.

Think about it.

And when you get that statement in the mail saying your copay is going up to provide full coverage, realize this:  every time a copay goes up, a bipolar factory worker gets to stay on his medication.  Indirectly, your money isn’t going to brigands or scum or people who can’t be bothered to get better jobs; actually, it is going to keep people working and improve the Gross Domestic Profit.

Everybody wins.

Who is worse: She who twerks, or he who is twerked upon?

I know.  Everyone is sick of Miley Cyrus.  Like Bald Britney and High Lindsay Lohan, Miley has captivated our national dialogue with her painfully wedged boy-shorts and hypnotically horrible twerking.  I joked with a classmate that maybe it was all a misunderstanding.  Miley’s manager said, “you need to really work on your stage act” and Miley was like “twerk on stage?  Got it.”

Hahahaha.  (Gotta laugh through the tears, man.)

So why am I blogging about this over-wrought issue?  Well, first, there’s this:  Miley is not the first girl to twerk, or even twerk to the point of nausea.  This is nothing new.  Nameless, faceless booties twerk in dance videos all the time and there is no uproar about how it is destroying society.  It seems like the only time twerking is so horribly wrong is when it’s Miley doing it on stage at the VMAs.  Even the songs she twerked to, songs that glorified drunken sexuality and whoring (although not *quite* in so many words) are not new songs, so why the uproar now?

Because it’s Miley, of course.  She’s supposed to be sweet and innocent.  Her face has been plastered all over children’s clothing lines, trapper keepers and backpacks and posters on wall.  She, as an image, is supposed to MEAN something.  Now that meaning is threatened, and all the little girls that idolize her see something else.  And they wonder what it means and why.  So I can understand being just as upset as people where about Mary Kate and Ashley Olson’s drug use or Lindsay Lohan’s whatever-the-heck-that-was.  I do, I understand.

Only women have twerked before in the public eye, and sexual songs have been sung.  I’m sorry, but as a society we need to accept that those messages are out there, and while it may feel more egregious when it’s Miley Cyrus sending them it’s not.  When there’s a public outcry over Miley Cyrus twerking what it sends isn’t a resounding message that such behavior is harmful; it sends a double standard.

After all, men have been twerked on before.

Let me back up a minute:  Miley wasn’t the only one on stage.  But the guy she was twerking all over is rarely being called out for his part in the performance.  There are very few voices condemning Robin Thicke for allowing Miley Cyrus to make such a spectacle of herself all over him.  We can’t point our finger at Miley and say, “grotesque!  Objectification!” but HELLO, let’s point our finger at Thicke and say, “Objectifying!  Shameful!”

As with every other video where a woman, a complete being with thoughts and needs and desires, is boiled down to a scantily clad twerking ass.

I’m serious.

Because otherwise, we’re saying it’s fine for women, their glorious bodies, and their complex selves to be made as nothing more than a tool for men’s desire, unless it’s Miley Cyrus at the VMAs.

We’re saying it’s okay for men to want this and glorify this and to pay some women to do this, but not Miley Cyrus.

And why is it not okay for Miley?

And for all of the men that get off on it, what do we say about them?

It’s okay, as long as it’s a woman who is nameless and faceless.

I realize I may be beating a dead horse, but it really bothers me.

It’s okay to objectify women as long as we never are reminded of who they are and who we wish they could be.  It’s okay for women to be made into sexual objects as long as we are not reminded of the childhood and innocence they lose in order to do so.  It’s okay for women to make spectacles of themselves for men’s pleasure as long as we don’t have other goals for them.

And our daughters get the message that it’s okay for men to want to make them objects.  It’s good, it’s desirable for a man to want you to make yourself a sexual object for him.  But you shouldn’t, because people will be ashamed of you.

Which, to a rebellious teen, sounds like a challenge.

It sounds like a dare.

The Cost of Silence

(This is an essay for a class, but I really, really like it.  And it’s been so long since I posted a blog…)

What happens to a society where the artists, writers, and thinkers fall silent?  What changes when necessity and fear get in the way of civil engagement?  What if all of the greatest minds of this age are working two jobs to keep food on the table, falling asleep to reruns of last year’s sitcoms, and posting memes on Facebook instead of speaking out?  Could it be that society is slowly deprogramming the electorate’s ability to create and dissent, replacing it with social pressures, mindless entertainment, exhaustion and fear?  The grinding pressure of the current economy is undeniably closing the door to art houses and niche publishers, artists are hanging up their brushes and writers are putting down their pens to pick up extra hours at more traditional jobs, causing beauty and dissent to both end up marginalized as boutique businesses.  The necessity of surviving everyday life blinds us to the real cost of the changing landscape of our economy;  If America is to remain the bastion of thinkers, a melting pot brewing some of the greatest innovation and debate of our world, we will have to raise our voices.

“The act of writing is the act of making soul, alchemy,” Gloria Anzaldua writes in her essay Speaking in Tongues.  Anzaldua goes on to explain that without writing, women can lose sight of their inner self, their dark and poetic “other”, they can lose their soul.  By writing, a writer can keep the soul alive; the cost of silence is grave.  As Pulitzer Prize winning historian Leon Litwack said to a group of graduating students in 1987; “History teaches us that it is not the rebels or the dissidents who endanger society but rather the unthinking, the unquestioning, the obedient, the silent, and the indifferent…  The time to be alarmed about our students is not when they are exercising their freedom of expression but when they are quiet, when they despair of changing society, of even understanding it.”  These two great thinkers give two very different reasons for keeping our voices engaged:  the first reason is to feed our souls, and the second is to prevent the further decline of our society.  The stilling of our voices, from either perspective, leads to different but equally grave consequence.  In nature, there is never true stillness.  Everything in nature grows or dies, the saying goes.  What happens when the voices of a society are stilled?  As Martin Neimoeller said in his famous poem about not speaking out during Nazi rule, “then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew,” which culminates in the chilling final epitaph, “Then they came for me, and there was no one left, to speak out for me.”  Silence breeds death.  Words are necessary.  If we are not content to see society fall away, we shouldn’t be content to starve our own creativity.

“There is no need for words to fester in our mouths,” Anzaldua writes.  There is no reason to hold in our words, and every reason to let them loose.  When we allow ourselves to stagnate in indifference we lose so much more than just the things we may have otherwise said.  We lose ourselves, our sense of self, and our sense of purpose and truth.  Like Neimoeller, we lose our connection to the society we may one day depend on for our own salvation.  Even more, if we accept silence from ourselves we give away our ability to dissent.  When the Nazis came for Neimoeller how could he have protested for his own sake without being immediately confronted by the fact that he had defended no one else?  This is a truth that Anzaldua unflinchingly embraces, “What we do and what we say ultimately comes back to us, so let us own our own responsibility, place it in our own hands and carry it with dignity and strength.”  If it is true for what we say it is also true in the moments we are silent.  What we don’t do and what we don’t say ultimately comes back to us, as well.  We always have a choice; we can choose to speak.

If silence comes at such a grave cost, why do so many embrace it?  The reason seems obvious:  Fear.  The fear may be of violent repercussions.  In the wake of the September 11th attacks in the United States, many citizens silenced their disquiet about the Patriot Act out of a sense of duty paired with the intense fear that without sweeping legislation even worse attacks would occur.  Geraldine Perreault references this in an article about the need for dissent, saying, “How quickly people have been willing to give up many long-standing civil liberties and the right to know what their government is doing in their name. The aftermath demonstrates the ongoing necessity for thoughtful dissent as a civic responsibility of citizens in a democratic society.”  Fear may have also played a large role in the German citizenry’s silence during the Holocaust; if they spoke out to defend the Jews, what would happen?  But sometimes the fear is far more subtle. For instance, what happens when people disagree? When they laugh? When they simply ignore one’s words? Or perhaps the silence is motivated by one of the simplest, oldest terrors that anyone knows: the fear of change.  What do we change about ourselves by speaking, and what changes in other peoples perception of us? Such change may seem welcome, even exciting; or, it may seem far more dangerous than physical violence. Change can wound a soul in ways that cannot easily heal.

Silence often seems like the safest option, if not the noblest one.  Gloria Anzaldua states that writing is one of the most daring things she’s ever done, “and the most dangerous.”  Speaking up is indeed risky. Even if one is writing about nothing any more controversial than breakfast, there is a certain vulnerability present.  As Audre Lorde writes, “The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”  But silence is also a treacherous choice; if we’re silent we stifle ourselves.  We cause the blooming tendrils of our soul to wither, wilt, and maybe even die.  We give free reign to the demons we wish to confront.  We kill the hope that we could bring more life and beauty to the world.  We strangle that part of ourselves that rails to be acknowledged.  We slowly start to die.  “For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition,” Audre Lorde writes, “and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”  But is it the silence that chokes us, or our choice to put the gag in our own mouths?

The only real option is to never accept silence, especially when we are at our most afraid.  “To write is to confront one’s demons, look them in the face and live to write about them.  Fear acts like a magnet; it draws the demons out of the closet and into the ink in our pens.”  We have to exorcise our demons.  There are times that it seems that our society is falling apart and losing itself.  Advertising, obesity, over-medication, falling literacy rates, wars, violence, pornography, media polarization, drugs and guns and sex; the list could go on forever.  And in all of this we still struggle with some very old woes.  Race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, all of these things continue to divide people.  There is a sense of disquiet and injustice roiling beneath the surface of all national dialogue, ears still searching out the next strong voice to bring discontent to the forefront of our national consciousness and help us make sense of the pain people feel.  Who will be the next Martin Luther King Junior, Harvey Milk or Alice Paul?  We may never know, if citizens continue to accept silence from themselves.

The truth is that even if a person isn’t the next face of civil rights, they still have a story worth telling and an opinion that needs to be heard; if for no other reason than to release their own demons.  Writing and reading need to stop being seen as a hobby and start being viewed as a social necessity and obligation.  We live in a society that trades words like a commodity, where news is 24 hours and on demand, and only the most scintillating tales get real play.  Reading and writing are treated like luxuries, or as the hobbies of nerds and know-it-alls.  Even worse, only those words which people most want to hear ever seem to be spoken very loudly.  We shy away from truths we find discomfiting.  How can a society like that survive?

Hubert Humphrey is quoted as saying, “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.”  Today’s society hardly leaves breathing room for discussion and dissent.  Adults work forty hours a week while children spend 30 hours a week at school not counting bus rides, or walking home, or even homework.  The New York Times reports that the average American spends 2 to 3 hours an evening on television.  That’s an addition 14-21 hours a week.  When, then, once household chores, meals, weekly shopping trips and social obligations are met is there any time left over for thinking?  Ghandi said, “In the attitude of silence, the soul finds the path in clear light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.  Our life is a long arduous quest after Truth, and the Soul requires inward restfulness to attain its full height.”  Yet the demands of society leave little room for restfulness, and the jam-packed pace of the average American’s day doesn’t yield much time for silence and light.  The light that colors most American evenings is the blue glow of a widescreen, and solitude is often peppered with voices from the television and radio, not silence.  The dissent that America needs to function as a democracy is isolated into 150 characters or less on Twitter, or blasted out on Facebook status updates.  

Facebook, Twitter, and the widescreen TV are not to blame for the ills of society.  They are simply a reflection of our problem, not the cause.  John Taylor Gatto, in his emblematic essay about the problem with today’s children, writes, “Think of the things that are killing us as a nation – narcotic drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, alcohol, and the worst pornography of all – lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy – all of them are addictions of dependent personalities, and that is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce.”  Why?  Because children, who are born learning actively through play, at some point must be taught to learn passively:  Sitting at a desk and repeating what they are told.  Gatto describes this construct as “absurd.”  It is.  The next great leader cannot be made by segmenting his or her life into 45 minute periods during which thought is turned on and off by command.  The next great leader won’t be encouraged by having his or her ability to think critically graded on a smaller scale than his or her ability to repeat what a teacher wants to hear.  A leader, such as what this country desperately needs, certainly isn’t going to be born out of demanding school- and work-days that end in evenings spent with TV and Twitter, and barely any time left for reflection.  What do such things produce?  Not thinkers:  Consumers.

To produce a nation of thinkers, a nation of dissenters and debaters, priorities need to shift.  Each individual needs to make the decision to turn off the TV, if need be.  And parents, knowing that schools cannot be depended on to encourage active thought, need to take their child’s future into their own hands.  How?  Treating reading and writing like another aspect of life instead of a luxury, for a start.  Kurt Vonnegut, the renowned author, said, “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well.”  By fostering reading and writing skills we not only provide the solitude and silence necessary to spark thought, but also the fuel necessary to feed it.  In order to utilize space for reading and writing in our lives, we also need to give up the idea that such space doesn’t already exist.  Anzaldua confronts that idea that we need to make room for writing brashly, “Forget the room of one’s own- write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom.  Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping or waking.  I write while sitting on the john.”  Neither can we hold our breaths until the right time to read, write, and speak presents itself.  We have to make the best of the time we have right now.  This is the right moment to stop listening to fear, to stop accepting passivity, and to do what we can to exercise our minds and right to speak.  We can inform our society rather than be victims of it, if we lift the gags from our mouths.  We must.