A few weeks ago, I wrote a post in response to my viewing of the movie Shut Up and Sing, the documentary about the Dixie Chicks, and the fallout that came after their lead singer made an anti-war comment during a concert in March of 2003.
In that post, I made this comment:
Those were darker times, all too recently, when public expression of dissent was equated with treason. It was chilling to see how violently people reacted to a few fairly innocuous words. It was a time when many people, including me, were uncomfortable about speaking out in public about political issues, especially criticism of the president and objection to the war.
I’ve been wanting to write more about that, because as time passes, my memory clouds. Recently, the tides of public opinion have turned and the political climate is different. It almost seems ridiculous for me to say that I had been uncomfortable expressing dissent publicly. I mean, come on. It couldn’t have been that bad, right?
Well, it was and it wasn’t. And to some extent, this was geographically based. In Boston, talking to my like-minded friends, I could express my objections to the war, my disgust with the administration, without fear. My friends and I could express our dissent in public, though I feel like we did so in fairly hushed voices when out in public.
But closer to home, only 50 miles away towards more rural Massachusetts, it was a different story. In my town, virtually every house had their American flag flying. Virtually every car had a flag decal or a bumper sticker saying something like “these colors don’t run.” Many people went the step of flying actual flags from their cars, sometimes absurdly large ones. And while the symbolism may not have been the same for every person that displayed the Stars and Stripes, for most, for me, the flag was a symbol of not only “Patriotism,” but support of the President, support of the war. It was about self-righteousness. Anger. The desire for revenge over the events of September 11th. When I went grocery shopping in a neighboring town, I was startled to see that some particularly zealous flag-waver had gone the extra step of painting their pick-up truck with clumsily executed images of the twin towers, flags, and the words “Septemeber 11th” and “never forget, never forgive.”
Most Americans at that time actually believed that the war in Iraq was a response to the events of September 11th. That Iraq had been directly responsible for those attacks. And many felt, along with the president, that those who objected to the war were supporting terrorists. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
In the weeks leading up to the start of the war in Iraq, many around the country dissented. Voiced loud (and not so loud) objections. There were TV interviews, news stories. Dissenting bumper stickers a signs. Anti-war buttons and t-shirts. (But these were also times when you heard of people getting kicked out malls for wearing such things.)
There were also protests. I proudly attended a peace march in Boston in March 2003:
March 29, 2003
In Boston, Massachusetts 50,000 people attended the largest rally in the city since the end of the Vietnam War. Thousands of people blocked Boylston Street in a die-in along the Boston Common. A handful of arrests were made.
While the Wikipedia entry talks about the large size of this protest, it actually felt surpisingly small to me. But I was still buoyed by the group voicing of dissent.
Then, just a few days later, I got an email from a friend from a nearby town. While we hadn’t really talked about politics, I knew we had differing opinions. That we’d voted differently in the last election, if indeed she voted at all. I knew she was one who proudly displayed a flag on her car. But I hadn’t realized how differently we felt. This is what I got from her by email, written by someone out there in cyberspace and apparently making the rounds by email and on blogs:
With all of this talk of war, many of us encounter “Peace Activists” who try and convince us that we must refrain from retaliating against the ones who terrorized us all on September 11, 2001, and those who support terror. These activists may be alone or in a gathering…..most of us don’t know how to react to them. When you come upon one of these people, or one of their rallies, here are the proper rules of etiquette:
1. Listen politely while this person explains their views. Strike up a conversation if necessary and look very interested in their ideas. They will tell you how revenge is immoral, and that by attacking the people who did this to us, we will only bring on more violence. They will probably use many arguments, ranging from political to religious to humanitarian.
2. In the middle of their remarks, without any warning, punch them in the nose, hard.
3. When the person gets up off of the ground, they will be very angry and they may try to hit you, so be careful.
4. Very quickly and calmly remind the person that violence only brings about more violence and remind them of their stand on this matter. Tell them if they are really committed to a nonviolent approach to undeserved attacks, they will turn the other cheek and negotiate a solution. Tell them they must lead by example if they really believe what they are saying.
5. Most of them will think for a moment and then agree that you are correct.
6. As soon as they do that, hit them again. Only this time hit them much harder. Square in the nose.
7. Repeat steps 2-5 until the desired results are obtained and the idiot realizes how stupid of an argument he/she is making.
There is no difference in an individual attacking an unsuspecting victim or a group of terrorists attacking a nation of people. It is unacceptable and must be dealt with. Perhaps at a high cost. We owe our military a huge debt for what they are about to do for us and our children.
We must support them and our leaders at times like these. We have no choice.
We either strike back, VERY HARD, or we will keep getting hit in the nose.
Lesson over, class dismissed .
I got this email from my friend on April 2nd. She also sent it to others that we knew in common. I wanted to respond to my friend, tell her the other side of the story. I didn’t really fear that she’d actually hit me in the face. I’m sure she just found the “lesson” funny, and didn’t realize that I was one of those “peace activists,” a humanitarian “idiot.” But the email did effectively knock me over. I never found my voice. I just avoided her for a while, whether consciously or not. Didn’t go back to the activities we shared for a while. I was busy anyhow.
The truth is, I didn’t have the energy to find my voice. To speak out about things I feel so strongly about. Not because I lacked conviction. But because I feared confrontation. Because I feared offending others, even when I felt deeply offended myself. And then I feared being ostracized, and making myself a target for attacks, even if only verbal ones. It sickened me to realize that my friend, and others who received that email, would take my silence as assent, agreement. But every time I tried to compose a response, plan a discussion with my friend, I would find excuses not to.
I’ve been working on speaking out about things that are important to me, writing about issues that I feel strongly about. I struggle with the fear of confrontation. I worry about the risk of offending others. Plus I struggle with the idea that others say things better than I can, so that I should leave the speaking to them. It’s hard for me to speak out so publicly, to open myself up for criticism. But I know that speaking out is an important step. That if we don’t exercise our right to free speech, we may lose it. We all need to add our voices to the discussion, or only the loudest will be heard.
If I want to play my part in making the world a better place, I need to learn to use my voice.