Two of STIR’s creators want to make you feel uncomfortable for a while. If you don’t see yourself somewhere in this piece, they did it wrong.
he word conversation has been getting a lot of play lately. Media and individuals talk about having a real conversation, changing the conversation, and joining the conversation. Yet despite how much we talk about how we’re talking, public discourse continues to fail.
STIR used “conversation” in our tagline because hey, who doesn’t love a good conversation? Yet when it comes to social, economic, and political justice, talking is a means to an end rather than the end itself. If we want to see change in the world, there comes a time to stop talking and start acting. The measure of a conversation’s success is not found in civility, compromise, or even consensus. Successful discourse leads to actions that result in positive social changes.
So, why do public conversations continue to fail?
Most people, Americans in particular, don’t like to feel bad. We’ve bought into the idea of the United States as the land of the free where roads are paved with gold for anyone with a dream and a solid work ethic. We take very seriously our right to the pursuit of happiness. We have become kings and queens of convenience and the quick fix. From huge portions of comfort food to pills that lower this or raise that; from bars and liquor stores on every corner to meth, crack, and heroin; from easy credit to one-click online checkout, we have perfected the art of avoiding unhappiness. If you want to check out of your life for a while, America can provide the perfect distraction. Yet life often has other plans. Bad things happen and sometimes change is necessary, but how can we make changes if we are unwilling to acknowledge that something is wrong?
Imagine a person who consumes an unhealthy diet until they encounter a life-threatening crisis such as a heart attack. First, they will be forced to admit they have a problem. Next, they’ll turn to the healthcare system to help restore their health. A cardiologist will likely recommend a change in diet and exercise. Ideally, the patient will actively participate in choosing a course of action, and if they aren’t satisfied with the care they receive, they will seek a second opinion. If the person complies with a mutually agreed upon plan, chances are they will regain their health. The system will have worked perfectly.
If the person ignores all doctors’ recommendations and resumes their unhealthy habits, they will become ill again. They might blame the inconvenience of eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. They may argue with doctors about diagnoses and medications and how other people live the same lifestyle without developing heart disease. That is their right. Yet until they accept that no doctor can help patients who refuse to take personal responsibility for their health, the cycle will repeat itself. The system will have failed.
Now imagine a nation collectively doing the same thing. People carry on with their lives, occasionally interrupted by especially bad news: kids dying in a school shooting, people losing their life savings in a banking collapse, high school boys raping a drunk teenage girl. Some people may not see a pattern or admit there is a problem, but let’s say a majority of people do believe there is a problem. In a properly functioning democracy, citizens could trust elected officials to address social ills. But the U.S. is no longer a functioning democracy, and when the government fails to act in its citizens’ best interests, there are no negotiations or second opinions. Elected officials don’t listen to their constituents. They listen to money. Unless one has millions of dollars and a powerful lobby behind them, they have no voice at all. The system fails.
People are left posting news links on Facebook to make sure their friends know they’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world. To compensate for those downer posts, maybe they follow up with a “Damn You Auto Correct” link to maintain a balance of “I’m aware” and “I’m funny!” Yet if they dive into the next distraction and push away the bad feelings, they’ll be sharing the same horrible news again and again, followed by the requisite “Grumpy Cat” pictures. Like the heart attack patient clinging to his or her right to live an unhealthy lifestyle, people focus on their right to the pursuit of happiness. The cycle repeats itself.
Americans who are infuriated enough by the government’s inability or unwillingness to protect its citizens try to talk about issues such as gun violence, unethical banking practices, or rape culture. But instead of fighting the system that isn’t addressing these problems, or even focusing on the problem itself, we often turn on each other. Public conversations fail because people stand on opposite sides of issues and focus on their rights as individuals while ignoring their responsibilities as a society.
hen something awful happens in the world, a part of us feels thankful it didn’t happen to us. That’s human nature. But when we go on the internet and talk about bad things happening to other people, we often separate ourselves from the victims. We look for explanations for what happened, not out of cruelty but out of self-preservation.
Those girls were raped because they were drunk at a party. I don’t get drunk at parties, so that could never happen to me.
Those poor people are lazy. I’m not lazy, so I’ll never need food stamps or government assistance.
Those children died because their parents left a loaded gun lying around. I’m a responsible gun owner, so my kids are safe.
Those people are sick. Those people are awful. Those people deserved it.
The rationalizations continue until we feel safe and content in the bubble around us. But those people are us. They are part of our society, and if their suffering doesn’t scare us, it should.
We also separate ourselves from each other. Take, for example, the feminist community. Women argue about sex-positivity, sex-negativity, fat-shaming, thin-shaming, single-shaming, and kink-shaming, to name a few. The person who feels shamed usually fires back at the offender with a privilege label: “You fat-shamed me because you have thin privilege.” Diversity should be a strength rather than a weakness, but when individuals feel compelled to defend every layer of their being, we forget about the whole and focus on the individual.
The result is a dead-end conversation that does nothing to forward the work of feminism, which is achieving social, economic, and political equality for all women. Again, we’ve turned on each other instead of fighting the system that fails us. Maybe that helps us avoid reflecting on how far we have to go. But it also smacks of women fighting not just to be acknowledged as individuals, but fighting over who is more deserving of equality. That is not a productive conversation. And the irony, of course, is that nothing makes sexists happier than women fighting each other.
Labels are important tools in identifying sociocultural problems. Privilege exists. Shaming exists. But when we adopt labels, project them onto others, or create new ones, we sometimes take broad social concepts and individualize them. We use labels to silence those who don’t agree with us, which keeps us from engaging in open, honest conversations. Many people with legitimate opinions and solid ideas are afraid to participate because they are afraid they might say the wrong thing, or say the right thing in the wrong way. When people are silenced, the conversation suffers.
Finally, we separate ourselves from entire groups of people based on gender, race, social class, or other “identities” we do not share. We do this by deliberately excluding them from “our” conversation. If we are the oppressed, we don’t want to hear from those we consider our oppressors. But in today’s America, people have many layers of privilege and oppression. It’s pointless to single out one layer in complex individuals and use it to disqualify them from talking about certain issues. Should a gay Asian man feel welcome to talk about feminism? Should a disabled white woman be allowed to talk about racial discrimination? Should a female-to-male transsexual talk about women’s reproductive rights? Telling people to shut up because they don’t have the same set of struggles we do is ridiculous. If someone wants to productively discuss sociocultural issues, asking them to go away is misguided.
We don’t have to like what other people say, but we should try to listen without being dismissive or reactive. The Internet has opened up the world to one large community. If we want to see real, positive changes, we need to put aside our individual wants and needs and focus on ways to improve society as a whole. In order to do that we need to focus on what is wrong, rather than looking for ways to avoid discomfort in the midst of debate.
Consider gun violence. From the perspective of gun rights advocates, the problem is not that kids are victims of gun violence. Mass shootings are anomalies. Statistics show children are at greater risk of dying in car accidents than becoming victims of a mass shooting or an accidental shooting. To them, the problem is gun control advocates trying to infringe upon their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
Now consider abortion. From the perspective of pro-choice advocates, abortion is not a problem. Women should have complete control over their reproductive rights, and access to safe, affordable abortions. A fetus is not a human being. Late-term abortions represent a tiny percentage of abortions performed in the U.S. To them, the problem is pro-life activists trying to undermine Roe v. Wade, which protects a woman’s decision to have an abortion.
Where can we even begin addressing such divisive issues? A good conversation would start by acknowledging a problem exists for someone. For pro-lifers, it’s dead babies. For gun control advocates it’s dead kids. Before we can work toward possible solutions, we must first agree what problem we’re addressing—even if we don’t consider it our problem. That requires people to start from a place that is extremely uncomfortable.
Finding common ground is hard. Staying there and exploring the gray areas is even harder. We could start by agreeing that no one wants to see more kids die from gun violence. No one wants their daughter to have to choose whether or not to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. We can also ask questions that make people think. I would ask gun rights advocates, “How many dead kids would constitute a problem?” I would ask pro-choice advocates, “How many abortions is too many?” We also need to be able to answer tough questions like, “What are you willing to try?” Doctors eliminated thimerosal from childhood vaccines when faced with public concerns about autism. Autism diagnoses continued to climb. There was never solid scientific evidence that thimerosal caused autism, but doctors tried.
When we’re talking about something we don’t see as “our” problem, trying new approaches may feel like we’re giving in to someone else’s agenda. Yet sometimes you have to give ground to gain ground.
That kind of conversation takes work. It takes compassion. It takes setting aside our egos. It means sitting with the realization that any of us could one day find ourselves in the shoes of our “adversaries.” Your child could be shot at school even if you’re a responsible gun owner. Your daughter might abort multiple pregnancies even though you’ve stressed the importance of birth control.
We like to pretend bad things will never happen to us. It’s uncomfortable to think about, terrifying even, but you know what? We need to let ourselves feel that discomfort and fear.
t may sound crazy but STIR would like to offer you a place to come and rest in the “feel bad” place. Don’t pitch a tent and camp permanently in a place of unhappiness—just stop by long enough to acknowledge it exists. Realize that the nameless, faceless person sitting at home in front of their computer screen is feeling the same way. They may have different ideas about how to make it better and you may not agree on what steps to take, but the first step in making real change is realizing we are starting in the same place, in admitting there are problems that we should feel bad about. I believe it is from this central place that real change can take place, ideas can be exchanged, and solutions can be formed. But first we must realize that something is making us feel bad in order to find solutions to get back to feeling happy. And we all love getting back to happiness.
Many people feel happiest when they are surrounded by people who look, think, and live like they do, but as the U.S. evolves, that isn’t a long-term option. We are all different and our differences make us unique and special, individually and as a nation. We speak different languages, we eat different foods, we listen to different music, and, most obviously, we look different. But if we take the time to scrape off those layers that make us different, that separate us—brown, white, female, male, small, large, wealthy, poor, gay, straight—we eventually dig deep enough to find the core. At the core is where we will find the same wants and needs that join us. We want our families to be healthy, happy, and safe. We want to feel loved. We want a roof over our head and good food in our bellies. We want comforts. We want fun. We want joy. Most of all, we want to be seen, heard, and valued as human beings. By the simple fact that we are here, living and breathing on this planet, we matter.
STIR won’t always get it right, but we will learn from our missteps. We will publish pieces we don’t personally agree with, because we believe that people should read things that challenge them. We might offend, but we will make you think. We will offer a place to be heard, a place to speak your mind, a place to suggest actions that might lead to positive change. We will not always agree, but come sit with us for a while in a place that might feel uncomfortable. Then let’s see if we can get back to feeling good because we’ve done something good.