If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?
— Rabbi Hillel
The problem with civic engagement is that it takes time — time to join, time to plan, time to meet, time to act, and time to see results. This last point, waiting for results is what tries the patience of most people and frays their last nerve just before they walk away.
Honestly, for most of my adult life I have towed the line making sure to rock the boat as little as possible. I have been opinionated all my life, but acting on those opinions has never really been a strong suit of mine. Under certain circumstances I have acted — signing petitions, fighting to move a dangerous bus stop, writing a letter to the editor, speaking out on union issues — but overall, like most people, taking action has not been a strong suit of mine.
If you stay quite though, the odds of getting steamrolled become exponentially greater. Ironically, speaking up often gets you labeled as a trouble maker and you can end up ostracized, isolated. The benefit to speaking your truth is that at least you said something. Apathy makes one absent from the processes of change. Apathy also erodes community in its various forms. With apathy at the helm, we cannot engage. We fail to connect on any meaningful level be it in the micro (our individual and family relationships) or in the macro (our schools, our work, our governments). Apathy fosters ignorance and out of ignorance a climate of disaffection is bred. In this climate of disaffection we lack the will to seek out information and information is the key to civic engagement.
Over the last six months or so, I have tried to adopt a new philosophy which can be summed up as, well, “F@ck It!” I’m damned if I speak my mind — I become a trouble maker. I’m damned if I don’t speak my mind — I get walked all over. This metamorphosis has its origins in a variety of locations, from recent conflicts with extended family, to changes being implemented at work, to inconsistencies I notice in local government.
I firmly believe that maintaining this blog and keeping to a rather routine publishing/posting schedule has honed my voice as well as my indignation. If I have something to say, I say it. This blog has provided a means to flex these opinionated muscles of mine. It has allowed me an opportunity to stretch philosophically, emotionally and linguistically. It has allowed me a forum to contribute on a community ideas. And the best part about this is that the community responds. The exchange of opinions and ideas has honestly surprised me.
Recently, I discovered the writings of political and social activist Paul Rogat Loeb. He writes that with “our political voice muted, guilt about inaction and memories of frustrated hopes may actually make it harder to recommit ourselves than it would be to get started had we never gotten involved in the first place.” And this is a truth. I see this currently in two aspects of my life: fighting against the PARCC and the struggles we are having at my institution as we attempt to battle an out of touch legislature trying to change my college’s mission.
I have spoken to many parents, parents who I know are active in other facets of their child’s education but when it comes to challenging the status quo they wonder aloud, “Will it even make a difference?” Additionally, I have colleague who has spoken truth to power, gotten punished, spoke up again, became ostracized and now refuse to engage. This refusal comes at a critical juncture where if we turn from this fight at our college, our students may lose out dearly. This is what Loeb refers to when he suggests that we find it “easier to remain disgruntled spectators” turning our “attention to easier tasks, we become what political theorist Hannah Ardent called ‘inner immigrants'”.
If we let the doubt, the psychological intimidation and any lack of experience halt us in our tracks then we and we alone have to live with the consequences of inaction. There are a million reasons not to do something, but really only a single reason to take action. When we abstain from the fight due to apprehension, that is a selfish act and to return to Rabbi Hillel, what are we if we are only for ourselves?