A few weeks ago, one of my high school friends who consistently brightens my day with her thoughts and photos put up a status on Facebook saying ordinarily she’d like to talk about a silly little event in her life, but in this current political climate, it feels terribly shallow or self-absorbed. I was bummed out to read her self-censorship because I know she is a deeply engaged, caring person, and I couldn’t imagine anyone in her life believing she’d gone into ostrich-with-head-in-the-sand mode, yet I understood where she was coming from (and have maybe been doing the same thing). I was relieved to see another of her friends point out that Facebook is a bit like a cocktail party, and if all you ever did at a party was launch into lengthy political diatribes or microanalysis of current events, you would be just as tedious as if you only ever talked about your recent haircut or your cat.
(For the record, I literally never get tired of talking about cats, and if you’ve ever got like fifteen cat photos you’d like to share with someone, I am your girl.)
I’ve been accused of being overly political, usually by people who haven’t seen me in person in a while. I find it somewhat laughable because I censor probably 98% of the political comments, rants, articles, petitions, etc. that I’d like to share, so the remaining 2% is too much for those who aren’t interested in, well, any politics at all. There are two extremes of the current polarization, both of which are actually fairly aggressive stances, and it seems many people are pulled between them in their lives at the moment.
1.) The “La-La-La No, No Politics Please!” Earmuffs Stance
Image via the Ear Plug Superstore blog, which is full of similarly adorable photos of babies protecting their hearing, awww.
This one can seem innocuous, shouting over conversations that they are tired of all the politics, and asking, “Can’t we talk about something else??” or posting about why social media isn’t joyful and fun for them anymore. Sometimes it’s a pointed refusal to engage in anything remotely political, or to even acknowledge that they live in a political world (I’m sure we all have those friends steadfastly posting diet and workout photos or inviting us to leggings “parties” or vaguebooking about relationship drama or whatever their thing is). I don’t mean the people who refrain from discussing politics publicly for professional reasons (which is an accepted form of capitalistic oppression, but that is neither here nor there) – I mean more the stance that politics are inherently unpleasant or rude, or the people who, to be blunt, can’t be bothered.
A guy who had been hitting on me at a club for an hour actually put his hand over my mouth when I made a political joke and said, “Please, you’re too pretty to think so much about these problems!” (That is a whole separate issue, and I know he was drunk and thought he was being clever, but still, ugh). I’ve been editing them out of my life, but I have had friends who brushed aside any mention of current events with, “No, I’m so sick of that stuff,” then steered the conversation to television shows and gossip. Dates who insistently redirected to what they did for leg day (NOPE).
2.) The Everything-Political-All-the-Time Stance
Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787, oil on canvas, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I am grateful for the friends always ready to call me out on my privilege, identify what they perceive as points of culture that reinforce white supremacy or heteronormativity, and help me constantly question society through a political lens. Sincerely – I think they make me a better person, and I’m glad they put up with me. But I have observed a shift toward aggression and anger that can become alienating and just as oppressive as that which they would like to fight. We all have friends and family on both sides who went overboard with political posts during the election and the post-election period, and I will admit I still have a lot of people hidden online and I have been relieved to be really busy lately and able to duck out of some social events with the more exhausting of them.
This is the type I fear I can be to the people in my life, so I may be overcorrecting to seem an earmuffer. I guarantee I am always reading and overthinking something (usually many things), and if something has happened in the world, you can be reasonably sure I HAVE THOUGHTS ABOUT IT. But I am trying to temper how I express myself so it is not all-caps all the time.
I know that the people in both groups care very much, that they are expressing either their passion for harmony and community (which can be mistaken for complacency or acceptance) or their passion for justice, fairness, and engagement (which can be mistaken for militancy). I am trying – and often struggling – to strike a balance between the two. I think I’ve made my bleeding heart liberal politics crystal clear for years now, but I am also passionate about my interests. I don’t see these things as unrelated, especially when the arts or the environment or human rights are under threat, but I do think it’s important to find balance in one’s life, so we are not trapped in fixation.
I’ve questioned if my art was “political enough,” or if I should be more overt and direct (we’ll talk more about this over on the studio blog soon). I’ve gone through days where my entire existence felt pointless in the face of these massive events and threats, and it felt shallow comforting myself with the apocryphal Winston Churchill quote that if we cut funding for the arts to fuel the war effort, there is nothing worth fighting for. I’ve made my peace with what I’m doing and what more I will be doing, but I still have this uneasiness of feeling like I need to justify the audacity of existing and carrying on, with an attenuation I hadn’t experienced prior to last November.
Here I am grateful for the elasticity of the mind and the way it can simultaneously care intensely about protesting an unjust immigration policy and about a new cake recipe. I once spoke with a veteran who, after a harrowing day with an IED, cried at the book he was reading and wasn’t sure if it was because of the story itself or his relief that he would get to read through to its sad but beautiful ending. There is still music, and it still transports the soul. Awful things are happening in the world and humanity, but rather than spend all my time lamenting them, I need to balance them with kindness, action, creativity, and compassion. I think we all do.
My strategy has become, essentially, “Keep your powder dry,” coupled with “Choose your battles.” There are a lot of people in my life whose political views are intransigent, and just as I will never change my beliefs about egalitarianism or humanitarianism, I know they will never change theirs. It doesn’t make it okay, but ranting at them will only isolate them and prevent any further communication and consideration between us. I believe it is also taking a psychic toll on many people in subtly observable ways, as fatigue sets in from the public performance of citizenship and scrutiny turned on ourselves and one another instead of those we should be holding accountable. I am trying to encourage my friends and family to save their strength for the bigger fights, and to not get mired in petty day-to-day nonsense (that is, after all, the hypernormalisation strategy being deployed) so we can catch the signals through the noise.
Often lately it has been super tempting to lie on the floor and listen to “Holocene” on repeat. But to quote my dad, “This is a lot right now. But we can’t let this be all that there is for us.”
(My dad is hella wise.)
We need to continue making life and culture, engaging each other as full human beings, and finding pleasure in life without stripping the joy away through our guilt or fear. We have some control over how we interpret our experiences, and we can tap out when we need to. As Kumail Nanjiani put it:
Reading news sites. Literally just said to my cat "You're so lucky you don't know about any of this."
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) January 26, 2017
During jury duty this week, I was involuntarily subjected to several blaring hours of cable news programs, and I watched the energy of the room shift from a general malaise of boredom or annoyance to acute anxiety to utter exhaustion and exasperation. My district in the Bronx is full of people directly affected by discriminatory policies on immigration, repealing healthcare, institutionalized racism, and the other topics that were being discussed. My district is one the president loves to impugn as the “disastrous inner cities,” mischaracterizing life here as a hellscape of misery, desolate poverty, and unending violence, when my actual experience has been one of a vibrant, beautifully harmonious, and loving community that looks out for everyone in it. It is the most civil and human place I’ve ever lived in New York.
I looked around and chatted with a few fellow jurors, always beginning with a shared eye roll about how we wished they’d turn the televisions off. I started to recognize the face of David staring at the Goliath of a political system gearing up to steamroll everything they cared about, but instead of fear, I saw patience and stone cold determination. One woman who had just described her fairly immediate and urgent concerns about losing healthcare said, “But we’ll outlast them, I know that,” then pointed to Michael Davis’s powerful Equilibrium sculpture overhead emblazoned with MLK’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I was stunned at how comforting her words and unshakable faith in humanity were.
When you think of all the hardship and struggle trees go through, clenching everything significant about themselves into a bud and hoping it’s not frozen or nipped off through seemingly endless months of bitter cold and darkness, it is nothing short of a miracle that we have flowers each spring. They don’t do it because they are brave or heroic, but because that is what they were put here to do: they have a biological imperative and a natural drive to persist and thrive. So too, humans were put here together to help each other and be good stewards of the planet, whether everyone does it or not. I believe we are in a winter of humanity, but spring is coming.
I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of what is happening in the world right now – it is truly as big a crisis as it feels – but I think we need to focus, tap into our reserves of strength and integrity, and organize. We need to resist “either/or” false dichotomies and traps of illogical, lazy thinking or tautology. We need to be critical and clear, use precision and purity of thought and language, and always let compassion lead our principles. It is possible to sacrifice truth for dogma no matter which side of a debate one finds oneself on, so we must resist the attempts to divide and alienate our country wherever they are coming from. Expressing anger is cathartic, and it pains me that some people have not felt able or empowered to express their objections before now, but we have to think about the end games and goals. We should not abandon a good mission over imperfect execution. We should not attack our allies, but instead come together and find our common ground.
We’ll get through this, and I have to believe we’ll eventually be stronger and better for it, if we preserve our humanity and follow our hearts. Nothing is more powerful than the love we share for one another.