This piece was originally published on Richmondmom.com in January 2016.
Ours is a complicated time. Raising children in an echo chamber of opinions, social media hype, sound bites and hysteria for its own sake has the potential to make us want to go off grid. I consider this option at least once a week. So often, the lesson our children learn is that society rewards the person with the loudest and most outrageous point of view which can make it even more challenging to raise thoughtful, engaged, respectful humans.
I was once a loud, opinionated young person filled with passionate ideas. I regularly judged others who I deemed “stupid” because they didn’t share my point of view. I remain opinionated, passionate and idealistic. However, time and experience have taught me the value of being gentler in the expression of my thoughts and in the practice of my principles. While self-righteousness can feel good in the moment it is generally unsuccessful when attempting to get people to think of things in a different way. Ultimately, that’s the charge – not being the loudest voice but being the most effective in opening minds. This work is more nuanced, often less exciting in the moment, and a lot harder to learn.
It’s interesting how these lessons present themselves – often very uncomfortably – and we can look back at those moments as being formative. I remember the day I learned that talking to people was more effective than yelling, being accusatory, or vilifying what I perceived as willful ignorance. That was a powerful day.
In the summer of 2008 the film Tropic Thunder was released. You may, or may not, remember that this film was controversial in its use of the “R-word”. I was working for the Department of Mental Health Support Services and we got a call from a local advocacy organization that the film’s language flew in the face of the work we did every day. We were asked to come out for a “protest rally” and to recruit others who might be interested. Advocates across the state had been working for several years to change the official diagnosis for those we served from mental retardation to intellectual disability. The consensus was that “retardation” had become derogatory and was no longer an innocuous medical diagnosis. The use of this word in the film was upsetting and it also felt like an opportunity to educate the public on these changes.
In our roles as Service Coordinators we worked to support those with intellectual disabilities to be as independent as possible and to put appropriate supports in place where needed. We helped in obtaining and maintaining social services, Medicaid, education, jobs, transportation, medical and dental care, clothing, camps, holiday meals, social opportunities, advocacy, counseling, and more. My colleagues and I were deeply committed to building a world in which the needs of these individuals were met and they were treated with dignity and respect within our community. So when I was asked to take part in this protest, I said of course – but I had no idea what to expect or how to approach this endeavor.
In the few years leading up to that day I had become a wife and mother, worked in the House of Delegates, gone back to school, canvassed for political campaigns and worked the polls for causes which were important to me, and engaged in passionate discourses on local politics, social issues with vitriol and judgement. Yet, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for protest rallies in Chesterfield County.
With all that experience standing up for what I believe in – I didn’t feel comfortable representing myself, my profession, the people I served and my agency as part of an angry mob yelling about a movie. The cause was so important to me that I felt the weight of getting people to hear what I had to say. Somehow I knew that publicly shaming folks on their way to the movies, in the middle of the day on a Tuesday, would not be the right approach. This was about more than being right it was about people’s lives.
When I arrived there weren’t many protesters and we were spread throughout a very large parking lot leading to the biggest movie theater in the County at the time. I was immediately relieved not to see the angry mob I had feared. Each participant was handed a stack of flyers with information about the lack of services and resources for people with intellectual disabilities and sent on our way. I didn’t know exactly the best way to approach this task so I just started walking up to people.
“Are you on your way to see Tropic Thunder by chance?”
If they said yes I would ask for a moment of their time and continue.
“Hi my name is Erin and I work with intellectually disabled citizens living in Chesterfield County. We work every day to support the needs of an incredibly diverse group of people and their families. In the film Tropic Thunder, the “R Word” is used to derogatorily refer to a person with disabilities.”
The first responses I got were fairly innocuous. Some people told me they had heard about it and they didn’t use the word, told me to have a nice day and politely brushed me off. I wasn’t deterred. I just thanked them, handed the flyer and went about my business. Then there was the man. He got out of a pick-up and was smoking a cigarette. He wore an old flannel shirt over a dirty t-shirt and jeans with work boots, medium length hair covered in an old baseball cap. I debated whether or not to approach him because he didn’t look very friendly but I had come to do a job so I steeled myself and made my way over. My initial assessment was pretty spot on. He was not particularly friendly nor did he want to talk to me about my hippie agenda.
“Oh good lord!” he replied after I gave him my initial spiel. “The word police are here. I’m not interested.”
I was shaking at this moment and I quickly considered my options.
- I can let this man go about his day and leave well enough alone. He’s not going to listen to me.
- I can let him get the better of me and engage in a yelling match in the parking lot.
- I can carefully share with him my perspective however shaky or sappy it may feel. I can walk the walk.
I decided on the third option. It’s pretty terrifying to stand in front of someone who didn’t expect to be talking to you about something they think is a giant waste of time, when all they want is popcorn and a cherry coke. Growth is hard and usually uncomfortable. I took a deep breath.
“Sir, I’m not asking you to not go see the movie. I’m not even asking you not to laugh. All I’m asking you to do is think about the impact of that word. I work with folks with intellectual disabilities every day and they are people just like you and me working hard and doing their best to have the best life possible. That word was established to describe a diagnosis and it has become something that is used to tell them that they are worth less and it’s hurtful.”
“Uh-huh” he said still appearing disinterested, but not walking away and not yelling at me so I decided to finish saying my piece.
“All I’m asking is for you to think about it while you’re watching the movie and maybe also in your life. I just want you to know that that word has the power to hurt people and you have the power to not. Thank you so much for your time and I hope you enjoy the movie.”
He continued not making eye contact but mumbled “Yeah, I’ll think about it” as he walked away. Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t in that moment it didn’t really matter.
I spent my entire young life being terrified of confrontation. I was one of those people who was so afraid of facing off with someone that I would immediately begin yelling and crying. Maybe you can relate? Maybe I’m a super weirdo – don’t worry I’m very used to that. Either way this was one of the most successful confrontations of my life to that point. I didn’t yell or insult him. I wasn’t self-righteous or condescending. Something came over me and I became calm and reasonable. I actually said those words in that moment. I’ll never forget it as long as I live because I totally couldn’t believe my brain was so cooperative. I think I may have done the touchdown dance.
I talked to a lot of people that day and received many varied responses. Some people thanked me, others completely ignored me but what I learned in front of that movie theater in the middle of the suburbs is that confrontation is more about how I choose to react than it is about what I am met with.
That day felt like a huge success to me because I was able to have some real conversations with people. Did anyone have a magnificent epiphany in that parking lot? If they did I was not aware of it but no one yelled or insulted anyone. It’s really difficult to scream at someone who is humble and sincere. It can be terrifying to make yourself vulnerable like that which is why, I imagine, many people approach conflict with aggression. Because they’re afraid too and they figure if they yell really loud no one will be willing to push back and then it will be over (cut to hands over ears, rocking in the fetal position).
This is what I try to impart to my children when preparing them for the world. Fighting indifference with anger, or anger with judgement will not produce the outcomes we desire. Asking a person to consider your perspective and also being open to understanding theirs is the only way to find common ground. It’s got to be about personal accountability. We cannot wait for people to be ready to hear what we have to say instead we have to say it in a way in which they feel compelled to listen. Our words have enormous power – the power to hurt, the power to heal, the power to develop understanding, and the power to break it down entirely. There’s no guarantee you will change anybody’s mind but you might just change how you see yourself and your ability to stand up for the things you value.