This is an opinion piece I wrote just after the Women’s March, January 2017:
Alexander Mieklejohn, an American free speech advocate, passionately believed in robust political discussion because it was part of maintaining a strong informed citizenry that would then be a check on the state. In Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government, Mieklejohn argues that the First Amendment must protect “the fullest possible participation [of every voter] in the understanding of those problems with which the citizens of a self-governing society must deal” (88).
At the dawning of a Trump presidency, political participation in all kinds of public forums is fomenting. From the Women’s March following the inauguration to protests against the executive order banning immigrants and refugees from entering the U.S., democratic participation has taken on new contours reflective of the sixties, but with narratives galvanizing new generations of activists. Responses to protests offer ranges of perspectives involving message effectiveness, debating next steps for democratic activism, and discussions regarding forming resistance as well as building alliances. These kinds of critiques capture feelings and desires bubbling within public sentiment.
However, one wonders how to find models for collaboration across political divides, especially in terms of everyday conversations. How does one politically participate in relation to family, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues–that might have very different, and even entrenched, political orientations–when the rhetorical contexts for deliberation seem so adversarial? If we could hit the pause button, rewind, and go back to the Women’s March, there might be clues for collaboration in another part of the scene.
What current protests reveal about average citizens are not only fractures and fissures along ideological lines, but also profound potential for common ground. The Women’s March on January twenty-first communicated this collaborative spirit over-and-over again as seen through the speakers in Washington D.C. Janet Mock, writer, television host, and transgender rights advocate made this claim:
I stand here today most of all because I am my sister’s keeper. […]Our approach to freedom need not be identical but it must be intersectional and inclusive. It must extend beyond ourselves. I know with surpassing certainty that my liberation is directly linked to the liberation of the undocumented trans Latina yearning for refuge. The disabled student seeking unequivocal access. The sex worker fighting to make her living safely.
Collaboration across ideological lines has not always been a hallmark of feminist activism. In fact, the diffuse nature of women’s causes, especially in the sixties and seventies, made it difficult to communicate a unified narrative, making the causes of women’s liberation seem too complex. Media coverage surrounding the feminist protests at the 1976 Miss America Pageant, for example, cast feminists claims into either/or realities, such as ugly women angry with beautiful women, and turned the dramatic protest involving hair curlers, bras, make up, and a trash can into a reductive euphemism for women’s concerns. Bonnie Dow argues in “Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology”: “Bra-burning, it was implied, was the desperate bid for attention by neurotic, unattractive women who could not garner it through more acceptable routes” (129). Beauty contestants had personal power and those against the contest were without that power, which avoids, as Dow argues, the wide-ranging critique of class, race, and gender oppression that motivated the original feminist protest against Miss America” (129).
Admittedly, the Women’s March of 2017 was unable to avoid media narratives contextualizing its purpose in highly individualistic ways. Hence, the tendency to reduce women’s concerns to pink hats or see women’s messages as divisive. Ah, the irony that Trump was able to use identity politics to pit voters against each other, but those that might resist using the same terms are dismissed or their concerns trivialized. Yet, organizers of the Washington D.C. march narrated their own stories, communicating diverse causes that were not solely anti-Trump. Indeed, the cross-cultural representation of these women made it clear that embodied solidarity at this political juncture was crucial and must rise above any singular cause or agenda.
One of the dominant narratives emerging from the Women’s March, and echoed in all kinds of recent protests, surrounds the process of political socialization. Michael Carpini, Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania argues that “political socialization is a continuing process influenced by ongoing interactions with family and friends, the workplace, and significant personal and societal events” (qtd. in Woodward and Denton 318). Identity politics is less product and more process in Carpini’s estimation; political identities are incrementally built over time in relation to others.
In the sixties and seventies, the women’s liberation movement embraced the evolutionary concept of political identity through “rap groups.” Jo Freeman, an early organizer for women’s liberation argued that rap groups were designed to raise consciousness about self and society, and to ultimately understand “that what was thought to be a personal problem has a social cause and probably a political solution.” From brief interactions to more heated discussions among trusted family and friends, everyday conversations can coalesce into expansive and even deeper political orientations.
A recent invitation to listen to the heterogeneity of women’s concerns was the Access Hollywood video debacle during the presidential campaign, and what followed in the Kelly Oxford Twitter campaign #NotOkay. Thirty million responses flowed in regarding diverse stories of sexual assault experiences, which allowed John Yang of the PBS Newshour to define as a national catharsis. Many national conversations followed regarding a range of issues: from living in a rape culture to challenging gender norms in political contexts.
What is political must therefore be personal. More to the point, if what is political is to be meaningful then it must translate to daily life. Cynthia Estlund, in “Working Together: The Workplace, Civil Society, and the Law,” claims that “the workplace fosters face-to-face conversation among people who have both different experiences, perspectives, and opinions and a reason to care about and get along with one another” (qtd. in Crain, Kim, and Selmi 459). The work place is thus an interesting test case for translating political issues to the messiness of everyday contexts.
The Women’s March reveals that political activism is less about creating a unified message and more about defining the terms of the debate. Even though the Women’s March invited all kinds of spin attempting to demonize women’s concerns, this spin also provided openings for conversations that define a different kind of democratic participation. At the Washington D.C. March, and now through his #LoveArmy, Van Jones, former Obama adviser, CNN contributor, and social justice advocate argues for progressives to be better at loving others, not just chanting: “love trumps hate,” but being true to the meaning of the words.
Democratic participation demands innovation to meet current exigencies. Everyday conversations have the potential to challenge assumptions using real world experiences, especially in relation to a Trump administration taking every opportunity to undermine public knowledge so essential to a self-governing society. The value of face-to-face interaction, whether at the dinner table or at the water cooler, should not be underestimated as it may be the only way to build trust and get at the truth.
Carpini, Michael. “Mediating Democratic Engagement.” Handbook of Political Communication Research. edited by Lynda Lee Kaid. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004, p. 410.
Dow, Bonnie. “Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6 (1) (2003): 127-160.
Estlund, Cynthia. “Working Together: The Workplace, Civil Society, and the Law.” Work Law: Cases & Materials. 3rd ed. edited by Marion G. Crain, Pauline T. Kim, and Michael Selmi, San Francisco, CA: Lexis-Nexis, 2016, pp. 458-59.
Freeman, Jo. “The Women’s Liberation Movement: Its Origins, Structures and Ideas.” Jo Freeman.com, http://www.jofreeman.com/feminism/liberationmov.html. Accessed 5 May 2008.
Meiklejohn, Alexander. Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government. Oxford UP, 1965.
Tedford, Thomas L. and Dale A. Herbeck. Freedom of Speech in the United States. 6th ed. State College, PN: Strata, 2009.
Woodward, Gary C. and Denton, Jr., Robert E. Persuasion and Influence in American Life. 6th ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2009.