Within the study of linguistic pragmatics, speech act theory is a theory of meaning that sees speech as “an action within the framework of social institutions and conventions.” In other words, what we say can't really be separated from our actions, because to speak is to act. And that action always takes place within a social context. We are not just a bunch of isolated consciousnesses, we are actors in an ever evolving dialogue. I awoke to this weighty reality throughout my twenties. I began to see myself within the context of the wider world as I heard my own thinking about life, love, and politics echoed back at me by colleagues and friends.
I noticed too, that opinions that diverged from my own were often held by people whose backgrounds diverged in similar ways from my own. This is not absolute, of course. Personal experience can shape thought in wildly unpredictable ways, but the often unspoken truth of life, which runs directly counter to the western notion of individualism, is that we usually end up seeing the world much in the way that the community around us sees it. We tend to join the chorus where we are born, and we convince ourselves we are singing our own song.
Yet this does not make our contribution or our voice any less significant or unique. A million tiny decisions and incidents color our particular perspectives in permutations too complex to replicate exactly. Will I sit in the front of the classroom or the back? Will I sit next to the kid everyone says is gay? Will I talk to him? Will I go to church? Will I laugh at the racist or sexist joke just to fit in? Will I date him? Will I date her? Will I move to that city? Will I go to that college? Will I take that class? Will I sit in the front of the classroom or the back? Will I sit next to the person who doesn’t look like anyone I’ve ever met before? Will I take that job? Will I move to yet another city? And on it goes, until we arrive at a place that fits somehow within a wider framework, which may or may not be the framework our parents hoped we would have, but which is nonetheless our own.
At some point among all those decisions, we have to decide whether we speak up from our own piece of real estate within the collective, and that is perhaps more significant than which side of an invisible and, in some ways, arbitrary line you fall on. At some point, you have to decide if you will join the conversation, or if you will let others do the talking for you.
But we shouldn’t get precious about it. In the normal course of adult life, most of us will at some point or another, and sometimes for years at at time, be too absorbed in our own lives, sometimes just surviving, to join the larger conversation around us. We should not forget that the time and the energy to speak are a luxury.
Yet we should also recognize that there are moments in time when we are compelled to speak, when the accumulation of events demands it, because the arbitrary line that divides us becomes not at all arbitrary, but seems almost to demarcate the difference between common decency and the lack of it. When the conversation seems no longer to be just about a difference of opinion, but about right and wrong. The Women’s March on Washington is not political discourse as usual. It is the collective action of thousands joining the conversation, because they are compelled to do so.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, the national conversation, and indeed the conversation among many people on the left, seemed to center around the emerging consensus that liberal Americans and politicians had failed and now needed to pay attention to the concerns of working class Americans. And though President-elect Donald Trump did not manage to win the popular vote, it is undeniable that his populist brand of rhetoric appealed to many Americans, both because of and despite its racist and sexist overtones.
That exhortation has been difficult for some on the left to swallow, who see it as an attempt to reconcile marginalized groups with their oppressors. And if electing Donald Trump was the rebuke of those who felt underrepresented during Obama’s two terms in the White House and misrepresented by a media establishment they see as overwhelmingly liberal, the Women’s March on Washington may be the answer.
As much as liberal or liberal-leaning Americans have had to make peace with the fact that Americans in large swaths of the midwest hold political views and cultural values that differ markedly from their own, the Women’s March on Washington will serve as a rejoinder that conservative and conservative-leaning Americans will eventually have to do the same.
Despite the mixed and sometimes even hostile feelings towards Hillary Clinton within her own party, her electoral loss left many on the left feeling as if they no longer had a surrogate in the national conversation. While many politicians and pundits of all shades have been openly critical of President-elect Trump’s cabinet picks and his dismissal of the intelligence community’s consensus that the Russian government sought to influence the election in his favor, President Obama has been restrained both by his office and the need for him to project stability in the face of uncertainty. The result of this scattered criticism has left those troubled by the prospect of a Trump administration largely without a figure to coalesce around.
A notable and recent exception is Representative John Lewis of Georgia’s 5th U.S. Congressional District, who admitted to NBC’s Chuck Todd that he did not see Trump’s presidency as ‘legitimate.’ Trump’s tweets criticizing Lewis for his comments have resulted in a backlash that has gained traction, a testament to the high regard Lewis is held in. It is fitting that Lewis, a civil rights icon who marched on Washington in 1963 and on Selma in 1965, should emerge as a voice of dissent, as he has before, just one week before marchers are set to descend on Washington once again.
They join Lewis, those who marched with him during the Civil Rights Movement, the suffragettes who picketed Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, the half million anti-war demonstrators that overwhelmed Washington in 1969, the Occupy Wall Street protesters who camped out in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, and countless others who have established a rich tradition of citizens putting their bodies on the line to insist that inequality, injustice, and discrimination are issues that a government for and by the people must address.
That is, in many ways, the argument protesters are still making, and it is the gauntlet marchers will lay down this Saturday, compelled by frustration that, for as long as Americans have been talking to each other, we still can’t seem to agree on that basic fact. They are compelled by the disillusionment of finding out over the long course of Trump’s presidential campaign and election that where they saw progress, others saw only their own prejudices reflected back at them, or at best, nothing worth saving. And they are compelled because they are no longer content to let public figures speak for them. They are compelled to speak for themselves, because some things are too important to let anyone else do the talking for you.
After all, democracy is not just exercised in the voting booth. Democracy is diversity. Democracy is a cacophony. Democracy is a dialogue. And as soon as only one side does the talking, we will know we have lost it. So on Saturday, remember that just as to speak is to act, to act is to speak. Let's march to be heard.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.