Progressive activism in the Deep Red South can be a lonely pastime. The burnout rate is high. Folks come into it thinking they can apply the same optimism and energy they’ve used successfully for other projects at work or in community groups with the same results—they dream big dreams, and when nothing seems to change, it’s hard not to be discouraged. Sometimes we wonder why we can’t seem to mobilize our local progressives. We know they’re out there, somewhere, but most don’t show up at our parties or send letters to the editor.
Theories abound—they’re too busy, too pessimistic, too bewildered, too passive. I’m wondering more and more how many are just plain too afraid?
Despite our cherished freedom of speech, there’s an astonishing amount of silence among local progressives. Doctors approach me furtively in the hospital corridor and whisper “I agree with you on healthcare reform” or send me kind notes by mail, but they won’t speak publicly. They fear antagonizing their partners and patients or losing their jobs. Progressive politicians and candidates tell me privately they want Medicare for All, but even I have a hard time advising them to say that before an election.
Our local healthcare reform group has worked to bring our message to churches, and I self-published a book for that purpose this year. Knowing some churches were key in the Civil Rights era, we hoped we might be able to gather that same passion to witness for those dying from lack of health insurance. Although we’ve had some positive responses, we are still often met with silence or ambiguity in the most progressive churches. One liberal pastor, nearing retirement age and with a child in graduate school, tells me he must restrain himself to keep his job.
I posted a question on my Facebook page to ask friends if they’ve ever refrained from advocacy for social justice out of fear. Interestingly, on the public page, our conversation turned into a debate on the meaning of the word advocacy and the effectiveness of various tactics. My private message box, in contrast, was full of fear stories—a friend newly single and feeling vulnerable, afraid of losing her remaining supportive friends and job if she expresses a liberal opinion; a friend with mental illness forced to listen to clients (whose money she depends on for livelihood) speak disparagingly of others with similar illnesses in front of her. Some of the stories are heartbreaking. I know these friends have deeply good, compassionate hearts and that they would do more than just a little speaking out if they possibly could.
I am fortunate to have a job that places less restraint on me. As long as I am sure to mention that my employer has no connection to my political work, I can do public speaking in my free time. I have accumulated enough progressive friends that I don’t fear social isolation. I cross-post my blog on www.leftinalabama.com – I notice I’m one of the few bloggers using my real name, and wonder if others remain anonymous out of fear? When I chose the title of my wordpress site, at first I thought I might use something clever but eventually decided just to use my full name. My concern over hubris was overridden by the symbolism of committing to accept full responsibility and consequences for what I was about to say. This frightens my father sometimes—every so often, he tells me to be careful, knowing there are dangerous people in the world who could hurt me.
There are still a few things I can’t do, of course. A couple of years ago, at a Physicians for a National Health Program meeting, we had an entire session on how to get arrested. I’m not really afraid of a likely brief imprisonment itself—truth to tell, it appeals to my dramatic Joan of Arc side, and I’m kind of sorry I won’t ever go that far. But if I’m convicted of a crime, even something like demonstrating in public without a permit or giving a ride to an undocumented immigrant, I could lose my job. With the shortage of pediatricians who accept Medicaid, some of my patients would have nowhere else to go. So I am restrained by my fear for them, as well as a more personal fear over maintaining resources to care for my disabled family member.
A purist would say we should not tolerate this kind of fear in ourselves or others. I suspect Jesus was speaking of something similar when he said we couldn’t serve both God and Mammon—he could have said we can’t serve God and our reputations, our ability to hold a job, the needs of our family or clients, or our need for friendship. If you are atheist, substitute the word “justice” or “love” for God, and the conflict of interest holds up. But it’s complicated. In working for justice, we don’t want to injure the very people we are trying to serve.
How free are you? When, where and how do you restrain your free speech, not just out of strategy but out of fear?
Surrounded by silenced progressives, perhaps those of us with more freedom to speak have a moral obligation to do so. When much is given, much is required. What say you?