I recently visited Washington, D.C. for the first time. After arriving, I walked a few blocks to the National Mall, and thought a little about the impeachment trial occurring nearby. But mostly, I thought about free speech.
A large part of the Mall was blocked that day, with several streets and walkways closed. Bus after bus pulled up, and people poured out wearing matching shirts, scarves, hats. They carried signs. Parents gathered children together for photos before shuffling them off to the start of a protest march.
I’d been warned about this march the night before. Thankfully, the advance notice made it somewhat less jarring to come face-to-face with so many people supporting a cause that I do not comprehend.
(You’re probably wondering what the march was for, and I’ve decided not to specify. I’m writing, instead, about the experience of spending two hours around thousands of people with very different views.)
I had a range of reactions: I felt repelled. I felt confused. At times, I felt unsafe.
At one point, when I exited the Museum of Natural History and was forced by all the closures to join the march for two blocks, I felt a desire to both laugh and cry. I pushed my way out of the slow-moving crowd as politely as possible.
I forced myself to read all the signs, no matter how illogical or blatantly inaccurate. I forced myself to imagine topics where I might find agreement with these people. And, I tried really hard to imagine how they had reached their conclusions.
After all, if you’re going to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, what better way to do it than by literally marching beside them?
Later that evening, I was ordering beer at a nearby brewery and the man beside me said hello. I learned he was from Illinois and visiting the city for “a rally.” I briefly considered trying to engage him in a conversation about it, but decided I didn’t have the energy. So instead, I answered his many questions about Canadian healthcare.
Through the whole day and the days since, I’ve thought about free speech.
I did not want to march with those people. In fact, I would much prefer to live in a world where no one wanted to march for their cause. But at the same time, I value the idea of people being able to gather and express views peacefully. I especially valued the people who arrived with signs expressing opposite views – and I’m grateful they were also able to safely set up shop.
But what about the far greater numbers of us who don’t rally?
It’s one thing to say we should stand up for causes we’re passionate about. We should.
It’s one thing to say we should try to understand the other side. We should do that too.
But I continue to hold a question about what we should or shouldn’t do about all the other stuff. There is so much about life that I take for granted. Unfortunately, some of those things are not appreciated by others. And when those others are more vocal – because they rally, because they hold political office, because they have more money, or because they have more time to express a louder voice – what is my obligation to respond?
If I urge all of us non-marchers to take stronger positions, then I’m perhaps urging more polarization…and I don’t want that. But if we remain silent, I fear the marchers’ messages carry more weight than deserved.
Maybe my duty is to find another non-marcher, but one who leans in the opposite direction. If we’re both middle-ish, maybe we can keep the lines of communication open between sides.
Unfortunately, “middle-ish” doesn’t make for a very catchy protest sign.