I've been known to hold a few extreme and even radical ideas in my day. In a male-dominated society, feminism itself is a pretty radical notion, as Marilyn French said. I will go so far as to say that some of my view points are pretty binary: either on or off, with no gray areas or extenuating circumstances attached: women deserve the same opportunities and compensation as men; white people are not smarter or better than anybody else; education should be free through the Ph.D.; affordable healthcare is a right, not a privilege; every human life has value (where "human life" begins is another, separate matter). As I get older, though, the gray areas get bigger until I find myself backing off from the sweeping statements I used to make about issues. Sometimes I can't even define my own feelings or opinions about an issue. For example, the idea of abortion has always made me uncomfortable, but I've never felt I had the right to impose my feelings on other women—nor that anyone else has the right to make that decision for individual women. People are full of contradictory beliefs they can't resolve in themselves, me included.
So it's starting to irritate the crap out of me when people pile on President-Elect Obama for not following their agenda. We had a regime like that for eight years, in which a deeply conservative moral agenda was forced down the throats of both moderates and liberals. And while I would go so far so to call myself a far-left liberal, even a socialist, I don't want "my side" to do the same thing. Why? Because it stymies progress, making it a tug of war between two opposing sides, rather than a set of compromises that everyone can live with. It's polarizing and unproductive.
Here's an example of what I mean from Shakesville's Melissa McEwan, who's pissed off at Obama's choice of his personal friend, Rev. Rick Warren to lead prayers at his
inauguration. I realize that just about everything in this inauguration has a symbolic value to someone. Obama, through his spokespersons, has said this is to be the most "open, accessible, and inclusive" inauguration in years, perhaps ever. That means including people who disagree with each other. Obama has already said he and Warren disagree on a number of issues, but the two are personal friends, and I think it's important for the president to have not just a few personal friends share this with him, but to surround himself with people who will disagree with him. Because everyone's voice needs to be heard. Bush surrounded himself with yes men who only reflected his own viewpoints and look where that got us.
This kind of exclusionary attitude leads to the attempt to legislate morality, which, by and large, does not work. Although most humans agree with many of the basic tenets of the 10 Commandments (murder is wrong; cheating on your spouse is wrong; stealing is wrong; lying is wrong; honoring your parents is good), we reinterpret them constantly (Is war murder? Are icons idols? What if your parents are physically abusive?). Morality shifts and changes with time, not through legislation, but through discussion, education, and exposure to new ideas. It was not until African Americans, women, and gays started speaking openly about their lives and the wrongs that they suffer that the general public started to even notice something was wrong. Legislation guarantees people protection from unjust actions, but it doesn't change people's minds. The only way to do that is to talk to each other in a civil manner, not excoriate them.
I'm not saying that there's no place for the radical, the strident, and the in-your-face. I'm all for non-violent protest marches and civil disobedience. It takes passion and dedication to both focus initial awareness and keep a cause going through to its ultimate success. Visibility is crucial to change too. Nobody ever claimed their civil rights by keeping silent, or being easily silenced. By all means, speak out! And loudly!
But some of the most successful causes have been based on non-violence and mutual respect. Mutual respect. That means saying, as Obama apparently does with his friends, "I agree to disagree with you, but I will continue to listen to you, if you continue to listen to me." Forcibly banishing to margins people who disagree with you only infuriates them, much as being in the margins has infuriated African Americans, women, and gays. I would think that radical liberals would have learned this lesson over the last eight years. Having my own political views and status as a person shoved into the margins over the last eight years has pissed me off royally. But doing the same thing to the people who agreed with that oppression accomplishes nothing. It's like the cycle of revenge killings that go on in other countries. Somebody has to be big enough, calm enough, reasonable enough, secure enough in the rightness and viability of their viewpoints and cause and in their own personal dignity, to say "it stops here. I will not return evil for your evil." Somebody has to extend a hand. It might as well be me.
Having respect for other people's viewpoints, no matter how wrong-headed or utterly barbaric you find them, does not mean we have to "shut the fuck up" as McEwan claims. It just means you have to listen. If you want respect for your viewpoints (and we all do), then that respect has to extend outward as well. That doesn't mean you have to agree; that doesn't mean you're capitulating or even compromising. It means you have to just pay attention and have a civilized conversation. Enough with the name-calling. You won't get instant results. It doesn't work that way. Think of yourselves as water wearing down a rock. Be the voice of reason.
Changes like this take a long time. They don't happen overnight just because someone screams "I'm right and you're wrong and you're an asshole!" repeatedly and loudly. They happen because people wake up and change themselves on an individual level, every day, day after day, week after week, year after year. African Americans have waited more than a century to see someone like themselves in a position of real power in this country, someone able to effect real change. But the most powerful change Obama will make will not be new legislation; it will be changes in attitude that will occur while he's in office. Hard-core bigots will nearly always be hard-core bigots, but there are people out there who will look at what he does in office and say to themselves, "maybe my parents and peers and wrong about this." And that change in attitude will snowball through the next generation. To cut people off because their viewpoints do not mesh with yours is counterproductive and its own form of bigotry.
I've learned so much from people who think differently than I do, not all of it negative. Even my friends who share my views don't share them completely, but we're friends anyway. I'm becoming more and more aware of how important it is not to be surrounded by people who are just like me, who believe exactly the same things I do. I'd like to challenge Melissa McEwan to do the same.