Grace Ross: Democracy Takes Courage
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
It certainly took courage for women to stand up against public opinion and stand out front of the White House to protest demanding a woman’s right to vote. But the women who were force-fed in jail to raise the issue, to fight for it, and to stand their ground certainly took huge amounts of courage. Some never recuperated physically from the experience.
When we reach back farther in our own history, of course, there was a time when our forefathers and foremothers dumped tea or came together to run a government official from the King’s government out of their town. And sometimes, they eventually took up guns to try to fight for the birth of this democracy.
Still, there’s an everyday courage that’s also required of participating in democracy. It is the every day part of democracy that often makes the most difference.
It can be finding the nerve to go tell an often difficult story about some harm being caused by a law or by the lack of a law. Walking up those imposing State House steps into those huge, yawning halls of marble at our State House, can be intimidating when you have never been there. It is easy to be tongue-tied the first time you share a critical truth that you may have been taught to be ashamed of in front of an elected official. Even with support, practice and encouragement, a legislative committee hearing can be daunting.
On Friday, sitting in the last of the hearings on gun regulation and a wide range of proposals at the State House and awaiting the beginning of the Jewish Holiday, I was struck by the courage to really engage in democracy.
Even with established laws that we supposedly have a right to be heard, we then have to exercise that right or it dwindles away. Still, there is more to Democracy than that.
The legislators who, for instance, sit on that committee have to address the wide range experience: deaths and anger around a perceived sense of inviolate rights on the issue of regulating guns. Creating responsible policy in the face of those divisions is a very, very hard row to hoe in democracy.
This is where the real courage sets in.
I know some of the folks who were at the hearing were having a hard time being respectful of opinions they disagreed with. Sometimes of the public had to be told to behave themselves by elected officials who even agreed with them, for instance, on the Second Amendment issue.
A different kind of courage is required to really engage in democracy as a full participant: that’s the courage to face profound disagreement by someone who feels passionate about an issue and still stay engaged.
Participating in democracy is not about showing up assuming that you’re justified in your position and essentially having a tantrum about anybody who disagrees with you. Nor is democracy about knowing that something is wrong, but becoming so attached to your particular solution that it never comes to pass.
I was at one point deeply saddened during the gun control hearing because once again people would rather prove they are right than actually engage in a real across the board solution.
In addressing our fundamental rights there are no fundamental rights that don’t have some restrictions.
Just look at the First Amendment. I like to exercise my right to Freedom of Speech, but I do not have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater, not to slander others, and certainly not to use my words to incite a mob to violence. In fact, in many workplaces you give away your right to state your opinion on any number of things simply by walking through your employer’s doors; they can put restrictions on what you’re allowed to say and you do not have as much right to speak.
Ultimately democracy is about many voices being heard, many voices being included in the decision making and decision making that reaches far beyond what we might individually want.
The particular courage that democracy takes is the courage to:
- Face squarely our problems,
- Listen intently to what informs your opinion and perspective, but also
- Listen intently to what forms the opinions and perspective of others.
Real democratic participation requires what only every day regular people can do. A government that is supposed to be of, by and for the people, requires a certain of learning, a certain kind of commitment, and a certain kind of courage. You need to be willing to state what you believe is wrong or right, you need to be willing to take the time to engage in finding solutions, and you need to take the time to hear from other perspectives and actually be willing to learn from them. Each and every one of us.
There is one greater courage, however, than any that undergirds or will fail our Democracy today.
When we were out collecting signatures this past weekend to increase the minimum wage (to levels that actually won’t even begin to reach the buying power the minimum wage had in the early 70s) what I was struck most by is the hopelessness everybody seems to have about our government. Almost none of us seems to expect government in any way to react to the whatever the wide variety of opinions are among regular people. People sense that government is no longer even about us.
They may have a long ago given up government by us or of us, but now they do not even feel – no matter they jump up and down – that government is even necessarily about us.
Here is the real challenge to courage: in a time period when our government has turned away from its most fundamental democratic commitments, will you find the courage to stand against your hopelessness and disempowerment and join the struggle to reclaim a government of, by, and for the people? Will you be willing to fight for what you believe is most dear and then find the courage to hear and learn from those who oppose you?
Because ultimately the exercise of our right to democracy – like with all rights – will depend on our actually using it before it perishes from the face of the earth.
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