Re-Learning to Not Speak

vintage-war-censorship-posterThere was a poem by Marge Piercy that I responded to when I read it in college. It was called “Unlearning to Not Speak.” (I recalled the title as “Unlearning Not to Speak.”) An excerpt:

Phrases of men who lectured her
drift and rustle in piles:
Why don’t you speak up?
Why are you shouting?
You have the wrong answer,
wrong line, wrong face.

I’ve been writing lately, so I haven’t been posting much. But that isn’t the only reason. I haven’t known what to post. Or I haven’t wanted to. The truth is, speaking in public feels more fraught than it ever did before. Them are fightin’ words! Doesn’t it seem like the bulk of cable news involves catching public figures saying controversial things on Twitter? It is a nationwide game, like Pokemon Go.

We would all like to be recognized, and we want online interaction, at least of the positive kind. The best way to do that is to choose an audience and stay in your lane. You will not be attacked if you say things that people already agree with. (Or if you are, you can write off those people as “the others” and rally your base with pithy comebacks.) You might even be re-tweeted or liked. It’s easy enough to do: here is my take on what y’all are discussing. It’s reaching the same conclusion but in my words.

What becomes weird is when you say something just a bit outside of the discourse and people can’t process until they figure out what side you’re on, or they make assumptions that because you said this you must also mean that and therefore you’re one of them and… click…unfollow. I can’t even listen to you. That’s called “assumption creep.”

I had a weird conversation with a friend some time ago during one of the government shut downs. She had posted a petition saying members of congress should not take a salary while the government was shut down. I responded that, as most members of congress were multimillionaires, that would be more symbolic than anything and that it would be more effective to threaten their chances of keeping their seats. I went round and round with this friend asking me what I really meant. What I really meant, honestly, was that I thought there were more effective tactics to end a shut down, less symbolic. But what do you mean? What are you really saying? What is your political angle? Honest to God, I wasn’t saying anything but what I was saying.

I don’t fear being attacked by people who disagree with me as much as I fear being misunderstood by those who do not. It feels terrible to have someone take something you wrote or said, explain that you meant or said something else, and then attack you for it. I find these days I spend way too much time explaining what I am not saying along with what I am. I can’t even say that I am often criticized or attacked. But I am a regular witness to verbal attacks on Twitter and in blog comments, where giving and taking offense is sport. I’ve developed a reflex, the same way I know not to put my hand on a stove burner whether it appears hot or cold.

You have the wrong answer,
wrong line, wrong face.

To really explore ideas, the best place is a diary, where you don’t have to think about anyone looking over your shoulder.

I don’t think I am alone in this polarized era in feeling as though every subject is potentially controversial. It looks like a group of academics is planning to launch a journal where scholars can publish anonymously so they can express their controversial views. Anonymity makes sense. Then readers can, at least in theory, debate ideas and not comment upon the kind of person they believe are making them.

If a lot of people are feeling like I am: re-learning to not speak, then I wonder where our novel ideas will come from.


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