Published May 05, 2010
Speaking up can be difficult, messyTHE OLYMPIAN
“ ... the fact is, running a democracy requires a certain amount of civic courage.” I agree with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on this one. Justice Scalia was responding to oral arguments in Protect Marriage Washington’s challenge to our state’s Public Records Act. Protect Marriage wants to prevent disclosure of the names of people who signed Referendum 71 petitions seeking to overturn Washington’s domestic partnership protections. Scalia told the attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, “You know, you can’t run a democracy this way, with everybody being afraid of having his political positions known.” I believe that it’s important for us to talk to one another in our democracy and to take responsibility for what we say and how we say it. Deciding whether to sign a political petition gives me the opportunity to consider the law in question and whether to help put it on the ballot. This is different from marking an anonymous ballot when it comes time to vote. I have stood on street corners holding signs supporting peace, abolition of the death penalty, and school levies, and opposing war, racism and R-71. I like to look passers-by in the eye and imagine the conversations that are taking place inside the cars as passengers and drivers read our messages. I want them to see who I am, and to perhaps recognize me as a member of the community. I have doorbelled for public parks and for political candidates. When neo-Nazis left hate literature in my neighborhood’s driveways, I went door-to-door distributing Unity in the Community posters and having conversations with my neighbors. Throughout my years as a mediator, counselor, and activist, I’ve learned a few things about the art of political discourse. When we engage each other in political conversation, it’s important to be mutually respectful in order for our conversation to be effective. It’s difficult but possible to assert one’s rights or to promote a different point of view respectfully when there is a lack of trust on either side. It’s pretty obvious that hiding one’s identity behind a mask and breaking things does not create openness to a different point of view. There’s certainly some value in shaking things up when the other side just isn’t listening, but I’ve seen much more creative ways to do that than using violent tactics. We also know that name-calling, ridicule, and threats of harm don’t lead to real change. When the conversation starts with threats and insults, it takes longer to get down to the issue at hand and to have a productive conversation. Someone might go along with a request because of fear or intimidation, but an undercurrent of anger and resentment will likely undercut any lasting agreements. When children at my school want to discuss something important with a peer or with an adult, I advise them to find the right time and place so that the other person can really listen. I remind them to make sure the other person isn’t distracted by something or someone else, to make eye contact, and to let the other person know they have something important to discuss. Respectful language makes all the difference, along with trying to understand the other person’s point of view. It also helps to find points of agreement or common experience early on in the process, so that there is a sense of goodwill and collaboration in seeking solutions. Speaking up for what we believe in can be difficult, and the democratic process may be messy, but with courage and hard work we can take responsibility for our opinions and respectfully talk with one another about them. Alice M. Curtis, a member of the Olympian Board of Contributors, is a school social worker and social justice advocate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.