We all have little interactions everyday that influence how we behave. It’s impossible to avoid and virtually impossible to change. The only realistic approach is to be aware that we’re influenced by our experience and to try to factor that in when making decisions. Easier said than done.
As a trans person I spent most of my life responding and conforming to social pressures both subtle and gross. Rightly or wrongly I was pushed in a direction I wasn’t comfortable with and that I was trying to appear happy about. However, time and circumstance saw that these things would push me in directions that weren’t just uncomfortable but dangerous and, in some cases, life threatening.
I can’t speak to the experience of anyone but myself, but I can certainly give you a few tools to deal with these pressures that may help you along in being both true to yourself and functional within your social circles.
Before that I want to identify a number of ways in which social pressures stand to quiet the truth, hush the uncomfortable and shoo away the undesirable. These pressures seek to limit change. To maintain what is and restrict what could be.
One good and timely example is the gun control debate. Currently there is a fight between those that would seek to change gun laws and those that would uphold tradition. We all have experiences that influence how we see this debate. Whether that is a healthy understanding of guns and their applications or whether that is having been touched by gun violence or simply being unhappy with some aspect of the current gun climate. For or against.
Your experience is different than mine. And democracy is such that the purpose of it is to, ideally, come to some middle ground that society can live with. We are always seeking that middle ground. So, even if things were to change, we’d still be working in both directions. It’s important to recognize that democracy is an evolving structure. It is, in some regard, living. That’s why some people refer to the Constitution as a living document. It can be changed, it’s meaning changes with time and as circumstances change, its utility may differ one year to the next.
Problems inevitably arise but they arise more often when the parties involved don’t respect the purpose, intent and spirit of the Constitution. When they use the words or the purpose to restrict change or to limit freedom they’re doing a disservice to the document and to its intent. Likewise, when people refuse to acknowledge that it is a flexible and changing – evolving – document, they restrict its capacity to both serve and protect.
If the Constitution isn’t allowed to grow with society, it will inevitably hold us back.
This may sound a bit like a conservative vs progressive argument, but it isn’t. It is a stagnation vs progress argument. That isn’t to suggest that conservatism is stagnant, and progressivism is fresh. That’s not it at all. Progressivism is a movement based on, primarily, civil rights advances while conservativism is primarily based on traditional rights. To oversimplify, of course, is to allow room for too much argument.
Democracy demands two things: progress and stability. And this is the issue at hand.
Too much change at once causes chaos and instability.
Too much stagnation causes corruption and inefficiency.
This is truly where free speech thrives. Free speech allows us to hear the possibilities, to postulate outcomes and to communicate results without some artificial barrier.’
There are a great many people upset about various aspects of free speech in the United States. Everyone wants free speech, but some want their speech to be freer than other’s. Free speech isn’t free, by definition, if some people have it while others do not. So, in order to maintain this, we have found ourselves in the midst of people we disagree with. Sometimes vehemently.
How do we navigate disagreement while also maintaining personal integrity? How do we keep our social position while maintaining our own ethical or moral structure?
You may already have an idea, based on my other posts and my gender orientation what my “positions” are. And that’s fair. You’d probably be right, mostly.
You might also notice I don’t censor myself. I say what I think is right when I think it needs to be said. Recently I took issue with the head of NASA. I think he’s a bad fit for our nation. Anyone that disagrees with that is free to do so but won’t be doing so in a vacuum. I will, if it’s directed toward me, defend my position.
That said, is that right in all situations? Well, I certainly believe people should say what they think, they shouldn’t be told what to say or feel as if they have to self-censor. But, I can also see where it may be necessary to do so. Now, there may be justifications I disagree with but when it comes to free speech I have a way of seeing it that seems to alleviate most conflicts in an ethical sense.
Your speech is your speech and my speech is my speech. That means I would never advocate that anyone’s speech be taken away and I’ll use my speech to do as I please. Within the bounds of the law, that is.
The second approach is to see myself as embodying the speech of those that can not or will not speak. I feel a responsibility to hold the ideals and ideas of other people and allow them the speech they can’t. In so doing, I broaden their voice but don’t diminish my own. I can’t, in good conscience, advocate for things I stand opposed to. So, where a lawyer may advocate for a person they know to be a criminal, I have no such responsibility or mandate.
Does that mean I’ll only amplify things I agree with? No. In fact, I may amplify things I disagree with but feel I probably shouldn’t disagree with. Sometimes, I’ll run into a news item or perspective I don’t fully relate to or that I can’t truly understand the depth of, but I’ll still amplify that idea. For instance, I don’t really know what it is to be targeted for racial hatred. That doesn’t mean that I can’t advocate against it. It just means that I don’t go around talking about it like I understand it. Because I only understand what I’ve read. What I’ve seen. Not what I’ve lived.
Finally, my best advice is not to remain silent when you feel like others simply want you to. There is often a number of social cues that may keep you from speaking up in a bad situation.
Recently a video came out from a fraternity which had numerous racial, homophobic and sexist comments and acts featured. The students and the frat are dealing with some fairly stiff ramifications, but the scenario is illustrative in describing what I mean.
The video is a hazing ritual and public ‘drama’ in a manner of speaking. There were lines read, parts played and oaths. There is even a fair amount of “It’s just a joke” seemingly going around the room. Not in those words but that can be seen to be evident. So, while their words and actions were highly offensive, they held to the notion that what they were doing was protected under the freedom of speech. And, mostly, it is. Freedom to speak. Not freedom to speak with impunity.
Why would people abuse the freedom of speech? Don’t they know that while they’re technically allowed to say those things that there would still be consequences?
This has to do with herd mentality. In these situations, the impulse to conform can be overwhelming. One need only do some cursory research on, for instance, the Stanford Prison Experiment to find proof of this. We generally take on the roles we believe we are supposed to. Which brings me back to the beginning, in a way.
In breaking from what I believed society expected from me I risk all the social connections that existed before. Many of which have entirely dissolved. The pressure to simply turn around and go back still exists. What few realize is that once you’ve broken from that cycle the freedom becomes who you are, in a way. Once you’re out, you’re out.
And that would be my greatest piece of advice. If you feel you’re being restricted from speaking up, from speaking out, from doing what you think is the right thing to do, try it. Just see what happens. Could be a disaster, could be nothing, could be everything. But you’ll wake up the next day knowing you did what you felt was right, and that’s the greatest feeling in the world. Feeling free.