Speak into the mic, please.
‘What is a Caucus-race?’ said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that somebody ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything….
Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh…
-from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
It was the first spring Saturday for sandal wearing. I packed my three- and six-year-olds into the double stroller and set off for the local high school to do something I’d never done before. I had no idea how it would work, how long it would take, or what it would require of me. But I was determined to go anyway. I was on my way to my local presidential caucus.
Before you become dismayed, dear reader, by the idea that this story might promote a particular candidate or mince party politics, let me assure you, I will do neither.
I went into this experience blind and wary. I was on my own with my kids in tow because my husband was helping someone move. I packed coloring books, snacks, and the iPad, hoping they would outlast my kids’ boredom threshold. Moreover, the idea of political debate with strangers was unwelcome. I didn’t know if speaking up would be required, but I decided I would exercise my right to remain silent if necessary. Despite all these reservations, though, my conscience compelled me to do my civic duty in this especially bananas election year. I wanted to lend my support for a candidate I believe in. So I went.
I won’t bore you with details. I will only say that it took too long. At one point, we had to pack into an over-capacity auditorium to listen to an inaudible organizer about logistics irrelevant to most. One woman shouted from the back, “Speak up! No one can hear you!” It did no good. Some people are fatally unable to speak directly into microphones. She then declared in exasperation, “This is an absurd exercise!” The next person on the stage heavily solicited monetary donations. Him we could hear. Meanwhile, my kids fought over stroller territory until one dissolved into fits of weeping, all whilst I strained to listen and considered the high probability of a stampede should an emergency arise. Did I mention I don’t like crowds?
When we finally got down to business, I was in a group of forty people, all who lived within the same five block radius. These people were my neighbors, though many I’d never seen before. There was a retired junior high science teacher; a tastefully tattooed, articulate couple; a sixty-something woman and her grown daughter who supported different candidates; two emigrants from African countries who spoke English as a second language; a cynical young man with a sailer’s vernacular; a quiet high schooler; a silent man who tucked his collared shirt into his khakis and clearly moussed his hair (on a Saturday); and my next-door neighbor, a bachelor in his late twenties, to name a few. It was a rich soup of humanity and felt like a clip from educational children’s programing, or a page from a social studies text book.
I learned how it worked. Everyone could speak about their candidate and others could respond, agree, counter. When we were done, anyone could change their candidate preference. Then four delegates would statistically represent our little precinct’s preferences at the state caucus.
I still wasn’t going to speak up for my candidate. Other people were doing a fine job of that without my help. I appreciated others’ perspectives and I learned a lot. But as the discussion unfolded, I found my views weren’t really represented. And one person, the cynical young man, supported my candidate, but did so with embattled arguments and derision. I didn’t like how he brought the conversation down to cheap shots and base motives.
I am disheartened by American politics and this guy’s approach is one of the reasons. The loudest voices are always the most polarizing. The entire dialog seems to have been hijacked by extremists and it feels so difficult to join the conversation without others assuming that you too intend to make war against your ideological adversaries. These extreme voices talk over quieter, measured voices. With fear, propaganda and an us-versus-them mentality, they silence minority voices and moderate views. This is democracy at its worst and it makes me just want to give up and go home and not get killed on someone else’s battlefield when I just wanted to parley.
I admire people who have the bravery to speak out in this environment, though. I have an acquaintance, Stephanie Drury, who runs a satirical Facebook page about the culture around mainstream American Christianity. Because she’s a woman poking fun at a system largely controlled by men, she has a target on her back before she’s even begun. Men comment that she’s just angry, that her questions are disingenuous, or that she needs more healing before she should talk about these topics. These are all classic silencing maneuvers, used against victims who name their abusers, against those who raise uncomfortable questions or try to facilitate meaningful discussions, rather than monologues, about difficult issues.
As an experiment, Drury created a male alter ego profile to see how she might be treated differently as she lent her voice to the same forums. According to her, the difference is profound. The things she posts, argues, and questions in her legit profile receive constant push-back. I’ve seen it myself. But she says that her male pseudonym’s posts are usually readily accepted and treated with respect.
Her persistence, though, proves that when doubted and dismissed people speak out, it gives permission for other voices from the margins to speak too. In Drury’s community of followers (nearly 13,000 strong), people feel safe to speak honestly–for some, it’s first time anywhere. Ironically, the voices they critique often have the opposite experience. Some big names have stopped by to bandy words, but they don’t stay long. When a person who is used to being able to say whatever damaging thing they want isn’t allowed to get away with that behavior, they usually cry “unfair” and run away.
Either way, majority voices or minority voices, we cannot simply become an echo chamber, speaking only to those who share our perspective and opinions. We must all join a larger conversation with the humility to listen and the bravery to speak. As a woman, I identify with marginalized voices. As an educated white person, I also identify with privilege and being given the benefit of the doubt quicker than others. I can’t change those things about who I am. But I can use them to speak on behalf of others who won’t be heard. I can also shed my fear and frustration and stop allowing the bullies to hog the microphone.
My engagement with the caucus debate overcame my reservations about speaking. I raised my hand to talk. My children were on the floor near me, coloring quietly between fits of begging for snacks. The eventuality of tantrum or meltdown was beginning to loom. I nearly lost my nerve. Then the moderator called on me.
And I spoke. It went something like this, less polished: “Maybe this is idealistic, but I believe integrity and good-heartedness matter. When inevitable difficult situations arise, it is a person’s character that determines how it will be handled. I would rather elect a person of integrity than a person of expediency, but duplicity. If the political system requires playing dirty to get things done, maybe we need to change the system rather than electing people who best massage that system to benefit their agenda.”
A strange physical rush went through me as I spoke. I felt the power in my own voice. I did just what I was advocating for: change the system, elevate the dialog, don’t give up or stand silent because it seems broken and nasty. And my children, whether they understood it or not, saw me stand in a group of strangers and speak my convictions, which is an example I’m proud to have set for them.
The debate moved on and my comments were both rebutted and supported by my neighbors. I find I agree with the exasperated woman in the auditorium–the process was absurd and unnecessarily complicated. But it was also deeply valuable, when you got down to the heart of it. The cynical young man was the loudest voice in our proceedings, but not the only voice and no one was allowed to speak for more than sixty seconds at a time. Everyone was given a chance to talk, an equal place at the table. It was democracy in action as I’ve never experienced it before. At its best.
Some of us need to learn to listen better and give others the dignity they deserve as fellow humans with their own thoughts and feelings. And some of us need to learn to hold the microphone closer and speak up, or else the most obnoxious, least compassionate voices are the only ones that will be heard.
J.M. Roddy used to raise her hand incessantly in class, talk too loudly, and process most of her thoughts verbally. But parenting and adulthood have taught her the value of quiet and that she usually regrets the things she says way more than the silences she keeps. Despite this, she’s learning that a voice is a powerful thing, best lent on behalf of others and used at crucial moments. And she’s never suffered from the fear of speaking directly into the mic.
So, J.M., how may we contribute to your campaign for public office? There are many who resonate with your sentiments.