Interlude: On speaking softly and carrying a great many opinions

This isn’t exactly part of my recent series, but it’s related, so I’m calling it an interlude. (Also, I’m having trouble articulating the ideas in my final post(s), so this gives me some more time to think!)

In thinking critically about the world and my place in it — as in everything else in my life — I seem to go through phases. I’ll go months without questioning my status quo, but then it’s like everything I’m seeing, reading, and talking about hits some kind of critical mass, and the gears begin to turn. And sooner or later I do a series on the blog, like the current one, or the one I did in Boston last fall.


This latest phase has prompted me to two quite unexpected and helpful realizations. The first is that even though I deliberately left academia in 2007, now that I think of it, I continue to shape my life just as I did when I was a student. I’m not talking about the all-nighters and the instant ramen, but the patterns of inquiry, of research, and of exchange, and the life rhythms they impose. I sift through a lot of information until something captures my interest. Then I educate myself about it, using books, films, art, music, and anything else at my disposal, and once I’ve formed some kind of opinion, I hone my thoughts through conversation, quiet processing, and eventually writing. To me this all feels highly personal, as if I were filtering the entire world through the drop-in-bucket known as myself. But people continually tell me — in response now to my blog posts or artwork, whereas before it was my presentations or papers — that I’m able to re-present information in a way they hadn’t previously considered. So clearly, even if my perspective is personal, its usefulness is not limited to me, and that’s a good thought.

Second, for years I’ve shied away from discussing controversial issues on my blog because I thought, from dealing with more outspoken people, that the only way to engage critically was to argue a side. But my recent posts, and the positive responses to them, indicate the possibility of another role. In thinking of my goals as a writer and artist — which are the same goals I had as an academic — I’m discovering that my main purpose is to facilitate critical thinking and empathy, across different populations. If anything, the side I take is that of recognition, and communication, of multiple truths.

I’ve hinted about this before, but I’m beginning to understand this role much more deeply than I did before. In seeking to make change in the world, it makes most sense for us to play to our strengths. I wouldn’t be a good fighter or diplomat or negotiator or active revolutionary. I’m not exactly afraid of confrontation, but given my nature, I find it taxing; it’s too costly of my energy. Crowds make me uncomfortable, as do raised voices. But the other day I was watching the documentary American Revolutionary, about 99-year-old activist Grace Lee Boggs (a fascinating and unique figure, and it’s a really good documentary; you can stream it on PBS for free until the end of the month), and she said something that spoke to my very soul: “The radical movement has overemphasized the importance of activism and underemphasized the importance of reflection.”

I’ll likely never be the orator shouting at a gathered crowd, but I do feel at home with a small and supportive pulpit, and this is how I see my blog and myself in general. I may be wary of the “controversial,” but in posts like my recent series, I have been as open as I know how to be about my truth, and I feel confidence in that, even if the sharing itself sometimes gets me a little shaky. Various people have remarked that my recent posts are so “gentle”, seeing this as a positive feature. That’s not something I do on purpose; it’s what I am. It isn’t always an asset. I believe deeply in hearing all stories, and that there is more than one truth. I’m a listener, not a fighter, and maybe a teacher, except that what I teach is not “this is how it is” but “this is how you can decide for yourself how it is.”

I remember when I was a teaching assistant during grad school, one of the pedagogical things we learned was to meet the student where they were. That resonated with me so much, because I too want to be met where I am. Of course it’s super frustrating when I try to talk to someone who is, shall we say, at square one of critical thinking. Part of me wants to just throw up my hands and say, “You’re wrong, wrong, wrong! How can you be so wrong?!” And if it’s someone I care about, I might not even be able to continue with that conversation. But I am not sure we can learn unless we’re met where we are, or if not that, at least met someplace that we can relate back to where we are. One of my college professors, the brilliant David Henkin, once said to us in class, “We don’t truly learn new things. If they’re completely new, we don’t believe them.” I know that’s true for me, which is why there’s so much thinking involved in my learning — I have to think about how what I’m learning relates to what I already know, otherwise I can’t take it in or even make sense of it. And I think that’s true of everyone, which is why it’s very important to always keep learning, because the more we know, the more we can know.

It’s funny, though; I had most of this blog post already drafted, about how I write gently and try to see all sides, but then just this morning Erik and I were talking about rape culture and patriarchy, and somehow I thought (erroneously) that he didn’t see a connection between those things, and I got so fierce about it that he was… “taken aback” is a nice neutral way to describe it, so let’s go with that. So it isn’t that I don’t have strong, biting opinions — opinions that almost got me into a fight with my lovely partner at 8 AM on a Thursday — or that I won’t air those opinions when I think it’s appropriate. But I won’t, generally, start from there, at least not in a public space like my blog, and also not toward guests in my home, which is somewhat how I feel about those of you who read this blog. Maybe we’ll go there eventually, but at the beginning, I will at least try to start where most of us can meet, and from there, see where we can go, together.*


*By the way, this is in no way an expression of disapproval for people who lead with their strong opinions and keep going from there. It’s not my style, but I can understand and appreciate it, even respect it in many cases. I think it has a lot to do with personality, with accustomed styles of communication, and with the extent to which people have to defend/justify/protect themselves in their day-to-day life.