Photo courtesy of Daily Mail, copyright Associated Press. Caption reads: 'A protestor holds up a sign that reads 'Kava Nope' as she marches outside the conservative Justice's home.' Find article HERE.
One day, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter woke up with the ability to speak. This happened a few months ago and since that day she has not once asked permission to use any of her newfound words. Speaking at the appropriate time and with sensitivity to the feelings of others is not part of a toddler’s skill set, and they’re ok with that.
At some point though, most of us learn that unbridled expression isn’t always appreciated and often we end up editing our outside voice to such a degree that it’s barely recognizable from where it began. This is especially true for women.
Many of us women (not all) temper what we say to seem less aggressive and more agreeable. We’re constantly making mental calculations before we speak up in the office, the street, and the bedroom. It’s exhausting. These are thoughts like, “how do I say this without negative repercussion?” (Aka, any bad physical or emotion reaction to what I say will be my fault for saying this wrong); “how do I say this and still be liked?” (Aka, there’s no way these people will always like or respect me unless I’m in agreement with them); and my favorite, “how do I say this in the most effective way?” (Aka, expressing a thought or feeling will not be enough. For it to be valid I must do it in the exact right way, at the exact right time, considering the personality I’m talking to, their current mood, and my hierarchical status in the room).
Now you might say, well, these are just considerations involved in interpersonal communication – some people put more thought into them than others. That is true, and that’s because some people have no choice! It’s clear to see how easily the powerful can dismiss a thought or opinion because the person expressing it didn’t navigate these silent questions to their liking or didn’t have to. It’s clear to see how these silent questions nestle perfectly into the existing structures of discrimination and power imbalance found in all types of relationships. If what you’re saying out loud is in response to questions that were never explicitly said but always implied, then what you say is easy to dismiss and so are you.
It may be a surprise to those who know me now – especially since I’ve rebuilt my life in the US – but these kinds of exhausting thoughts used to plague me to such an extent that saying my own name to a group of people would cause hot flushes of dread and a roller coaster stomach. I hated myself for being that way. That was nearly 20 years ago, and I still think of that time as the defining phase where I realized that not being able to speak out loud would severely limit me in every sense and that it had to change somehow. Perhaps it’s because of this that I think a lot about whose voice gets heard and why.
Fast forward 10 years or so to the last job I had before embarking on this new life as an *artist* and the art of speaking up at the right time and place felt as confusing as ever. Sometimes I knew I was right, others I’m sure I was wrong, but most often I couldn’t tell. The chronic silence or indifference that I was regularly met with when I did speak up caused a crippling kind of doubt that started to permeate all aspects of my life.
At one point, after the birth of my daughter, this confusion was compounded by my very real perception that someone was trying to kill me. In my mind’s eye I would see shadowy figures on the other side of an office door ready to stab me in the stomach or come up behind me with a lead pipe to beat me over the head while I sat in my cubicle. I would jump out of my skin as I walked to work when I ‘saw’ a car careen off the road and hurtle towards me onto the sidewalk. I was pretty sure those things weren’t happening in real life because if everyone around me could see them then they were all remarkably chill with my imminent death. But it felt like my reality.
The line between opinion and reality and whose opinion of reality wins in the final narrative is always hard to follow. This goes some way to explain why a protest I recently took part in drew more controversy for the place it was held (an indisputable reality) than the opinion it was expressing. Discussion around the former is easier than the latter.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I drove to Brett Kavanaugh’s house in Chevy Chase, Washington, DC, where we joined ShutDownDC to protest the Texas abortion ban put into effect on Sept 1st. This is the first 6-week abortion ban in the US, and the first of its kind to rely on enforcement by private individuals through civil lawsuits, rather than by the government. This effectively places a bounty on the head of anyone who has an abortion, anyone who performs one, and anyone who is in any minute way involved in the process. It’s an abhorrent law and the ultimate privatization of healthcare in a country that doesn’t view healthcare as a human right.
By most people’s standards, this protest was tame. We had clear instructions not to engage with the police, there was enough water for everyone, and there were even regular reminders to look out for cars as we crossed the roads. No flaming torches or pitch forks, just a group of concerned citizens exercising their right to protest on public property. When we arrived at Kavanaugh’s house a handful of people held a banner on the sidewalk and predesignated speakers spoke. There was a woman with chalk. The whole thing lasted no more than an hour, then we were all on our way.
The next day The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote an article about how this protest “crossed the line”. The view of the board, at least one of whom I assume is a neighbor of Kavanaugh’s and had trouble parking that evening, ended with this sentence; “Leave spouses, children and homes out of it. If that appeal for basic civility and decency isn’t persuasive, those who engage in these reprehensible tactics should realize they are only hurting their cause when it is overshadowed by their tactics.”
This opinion was fascinating to me for several reasons. First, we didn’t trespass on or vandalize any property, unlike during the protests at Pelosi’s house that are mentioned in comparison. Violence against others was not used as a tactic and I don’t believe there is a time when it should be used. And second, to decide that standing on a public street is an invasion of privacy and an assault on basic civility and decency, when the reason we were there was because of Kavanaugh’s role in ensuring our uteruses are under government control at the cost of women’s lives is astounding.
Leave spouses, children, and homes out of it? We would love to, but the request can’t be one way. All three of these apparently forbidden territories are severely affected for those of us who want an abortion but aren’t permitted to make that choice. Nobody invaded Kavanaugh’s home, but the law he helped to pass has invaded our bodies. I would argue that being one of the most powerful men in the country comes with perks and drawbacks. This is one of the drawbacks for sure, but it’s also a direct consequence of the man’s actions.
After some backlash, The Post wrote another article to say that protests like these were “dumb” instead of unacceptable, followed by a long explanation of how we should all pander to Kavanaugh’s desperation for approval rather than tell him the truth about the consequences of laws that he supports.
This brings us back to the idea that there is a right and a wrong way to express an opinion and that the powerful get to decide which one is which. In this theory, the natural variation on the spectrum of expression is irrelevant. Your form of expression must fit the mold made by those in power, which is built specifically so that they feel the least amount of humiliation and discomfort as possible.
Once again, I do not agree with the use of violence to express an opinion from either the powerful or the oppressed and in this post I’m referring to nonviolent expressions of opinion. The structure of who decides what’s valid and what’s not still stands though, as state sanctioned violence is justified by the powerful and every other kind is criminalized, no matter the context.
If you believe that the only purpose of protest is policy change, as this second Post article suggests, I’d argue that this is also an opinion and not a fact. Policy change is the primary reason, but the humiliation and discomfort of powerful people and institutions is also a valid reason and a reminder of the people a policy affects.
Women will die as a result of the Texas abortion ban. History has shown us time and again that when abortion is banned it doesn’t mean that it stops. Only safe abortion stops. People of means, like those in Kavanaugh’s class, will always have access to safe abortion no matter where they live. Our protest did serve a purpose in that it led to media coverage that exposed the double standards by which the rights of certain citizens are held compared to others. It’s ok to remove the right to bodily autonomy from an entire state, but not to oppose it near a residence.
If our protest was the only form of opposition taking place, I would agree that it isn’t effective – but it isn’t, it’s one of many. And that’s because not all of us are congressional representatives able to directly influence legislative change, and because laws as egregious as this illicit the type of anger and hurt that must be released. Testimonies given outside Kavanaugh’s house sharing why abortion is vital do matter because the press and people like me will turn up to hear them. Through our protest we drew attention to a reality that was uncomfortable to hear but real none the less and we refuse to allow others to dismiss it.
Opinions might be like arseholes (everybody has one), but when it comes to expressing them openly, they’re like kids. If you’re waiting for the perfect time and situation, you’ll be waiting forever. Draw attention to the opinions that are informed by science, compassion, your own eyes, and the lived experience of those who would know, and you’re far more likely to find something close to reality. Don’t let those who place more importance on the ‘right’ way to express an opinion than the opinion itself decide reality for you. They’re not your friend.
**In this article I refer to women’s bodies and uteruses as those affected by the Texas abortion ban. This is for simplicity only. I believe that trans women are women and trans men are men, meaning not all women have uteruses and not all those who give birth are women.