The political orgy that is the presidential elections, as well as the recent arrests of journalists and pepper-spraying of protesters at the RNC, has got me thinking a lot about protest -- from the Latin protestari, meaning literally to testify, to give witness to (testis, witness) before (pro) the public. It's so strange to me that it's always such a struggle to demand the most basic of human freedoms and rights. Why?
Below is a startling photo of Lucy Burns, a suffragist who was imprisoned, beaten and, when she went on a hunger strike, forcibly fed with a tube. All because she held up a sign demanding women's suffrage.
I think about the way she was treated for protesting, and read the accounts of other suffragists during the so-called "Night of Terror," when they were kicked, bruised and battered. Why, I keep wondering, why would a guard at the Occoquan Workhouse care if women got the right to vote? That is, care enough to beat her unconscious? Forget the hypocrisy of it all, forget the politics that would have provoked President Wilson to imprison these women in the first place. Just at the most basic level, what drives someone who is almost completely unaffected by the outcome of an issue to take up arms (sometimes literally!) against it?
That sounds reductionist, silly, even stupid, and certainly not all social issues are so straightforward. I realize, for instance, that slave owners in the American South had economic incentive to fight for slavery to continue. I can also hear the old progressive guard shouting "power wants to maintain its power, don't you get it!" Sure, that seems true. But is that the refrain playing in the jailguard's head as he throws a young woman against iron bars?
I know two women who believe abortion should be completely outlawed. They're both post-menopausal.
I know someone who is in favor of the death penalty. She has never come in contact with the criminal justice system. Not once.
Everyone I know who is against gay marriage is heterosexual.
Certainly you don't have to have a stake in the outcome if an issue to become an advocate either for or against it. One could rejoin that I am against the war, yet don't have any family members who are fighting in it. That's true. But I'm also a taxpayer who's helped pay the over $600 billion dollars this war has cost so far. And I'm a student, who has suffered because of the crunch on federal scholarships and student loans. Every taxpaying American has a stake in the Iraq war.
In fact, my stance on the invasion of Iraq is just another instance of "live and let live." Gay couples want to marry? Let them. It doesn't hurt anyone. Someone wants to scrape a few cells out of her uterus? Go for it. We haven't outlawed scratching one's forehead, which is about equal to the damage done by an early abortion. Invade a sovereign nation? No. Live and let live. Or better yet, live and help others to live. Don't blow people's limbs off. Pretty simple.
To put it another way, you don't have to like gay marriage, you don't even have to like gay people -- just give them the same freedom to choose how to manage their relationships that everyone else has, and be done with it. Stop wasting time and money on these silly debates. Lots of countries and now several states have legalized gay marriage, and the world didn't implode. Nor do you have to like abortion (does anyone like abortion?) to see that someone, somewhere, might at one point like to have that option. If you're religious and think God is pissed about something or other, then stop doing that thing. Don't have an abortion, don't marry someone of the same sex. Live your life according to those beliefs. But don't use your religion as an excuse to micromanage everyone else's life. I think Christianity is a pretty ridiculous religion, but I don't try to pass legislation outlawing churches. This is such an obvious point that I'm almost embarrassed to be making it.
Again: why, why did women have to get jailed and beaten before they got the right to vote? What could have driven that guard to batter Lucy Burns for holding up a sign?
This is at the heart of why we protest, why we testify and give witness (testis) against injustices. And why we need to continue.
[Helene Hill Weed, 1917, suffragist and prisoner]