Unity, Activism, and the Reality of our Divided Nation 

by Charlotte Kramon

In 1972, a man lied in his hospital bed after someone shot him with the intentions of an assassin. His hand silently squeezed another hand in attempt to savor its owner’s visit for a few more moments. As George Wallace, notorious segregationist, waited patiently for his wounds to heal and pain to drift away, Shirley Chisholm, outspoken feminist, civil rights activist, and the first African American first African American woman elected to congress and to run for president, sat by his side. Many were perplexed by her unexpected gesture. As a nurse summoned the congresswoman to leave, Wallace held onto her hand tightly, an unspoken expression of gratitude and love.

Chisholm’s visit was intended to spread her conviction about the value of respecting opposing opinions without “impugning the motives” and “maligning the character” of the other side. Ignoring those concepts would stimulate, according to Chisholm, “the same sickness in public life that leads to assassinations.”

Over 40 years later, a nation watched the Republican primaries as Chris Christie was mercilessly bashed for accepting Barack Obama’s hug 4 years earlier after the devastating hurricane Sandy hit his city, New Jersey, resulting in massive damage and loss. Sen Cory Booker said of the moment in an interview with Ezra Klein, “I’m hugger, and it was not a good hug.”

A brewing generation is being taught to believe that when we encounter a problem, it is best to see what our opponent has done wrong rather than reflect on our mistakes. Both sides of the political spectrum are increasingly seeing each other as the “other.” People’s instincts are to point fingers at those who believe the opposite of what they do, and label them as “bigots.”

My fellow feminists have made mistakes that ignore the values of some of the most influential feminists in history, like Chisholm. I often talk about how inclusion and respect is essential to any movement, and activists forget this sometimes.

The dehumanization, exclusion, and finger-pointing at men misrepresents what feminism should be. I will never forget my first driving lesson, when my instructor asked me typical ice breaking questions such as the types of activities I do. When I brought up co editing this magazine and used the word feminism in the description, he (jokingly) asked me if I was going to “kill” my “male driving teacher.” It is not his fault he had this misconception. Although it’s a minority of feminists who spread such ideas, they’re certainly loud.

For example, some of the most popular tweets under the #YesAllWomen twitter hashtag in response to Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree in Isla Vista, California, compared men to sharks and described them as “M&M candies” of which “10% are poisoned,” according to Cathy Young from Time Magazine. A well known British feminist writer see men as a group blinded by a woman-hating culture and claims that “even the sweetest, gentlest man” benefits from female oppression. Her quotes have been shared by almost 84,000 Tumblr users in six months.

People involved in social justice movements aren’t only alienating others for being men. When a reporter from a generally left-leaning newspaper asked a female immigrant if she viewed her immigration rights as a privilege, she started yelling at him like a mad woman and accused him of being a racist, sexist, etc. person. The woman was allowed to have a problem with his statement. That’s the beauty of free speech. The problem that seems to be pertinent among so many activist in modern times is that rather than calmly yet firmly articulating a valid argument on why she had an issue with his question, she let her emotions drive a reaction. This is partly perpetrated by social media, which feeds off of constant reacting. These reactions are based on pure emotions rather than rational, critical thinking. When we let emotion-controlled reactions run wild, we don’t give ourselves the space we need understand the situation so that we can formulate clear arguments and understand and respect the other side. By yelling at someone that they’re a misogynistic pig or whatever the remark might be, their defensive instincts will keep them from ever having any desire to understand any side but their own. And so, there we have it. Both sides won’t want to understand each other. We are forgetting that people are allowed to express their ideas, and we don’t have to agree with them.

At a time when the political climate is facing pressing divisions, we need to acknowledge the role of social justice movements. For those who are feminists, we might also ask ourselves, would some of history’s most essential feminist be pleased with certain parts of the movement today? Feminists have attempted to avoid focusing to intensely on men’s misbehavior in the past. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, attempted to steer feminism from the path of “sex/class warfare,” as she described it. Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest feminists, said, “I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over themselves.” Shirley Chisholm articulated perfectly how alienating the other side and “maligning” their character is unproductive and can lead to violent incidents we see historically as well as today.

Despite the wrongdoings I see in modern feminists, I proudly identify as a feminist myself. There is still plenty of positive efforts being made within the movement today. Although there have been some situations where she appeared as trying to shut down her opponent, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is someone who remains strong, outspoken, and is rightfully angry about the inequality she sees in gender today. However, she avoids bashing men or any political party. Her TEDtalk was distributed in book form throughout Sweden and a lot of the feedback she received was from boys who said they learned that feminists did not have to hate men.

We still need feminism, and women have every right to be angry about the inequality that takes place in our modern world. However, in order for not just feminism to be successful but for unity in today’s political atmosphere, we can’t forget to use our rational thinking skills when formulating arguments and a willingness to understand and respect opposing views, rather than labeling them as evil.

As a group of professors from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale wrote in their letter about the importance of open-mindedness, “Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word “bigot” is a person “who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.” The only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate are the actual bigots, including those...who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.” Everyone is allowed to speak and everyone is allowed to have opinions. Remember, it’s ok to hug someone if they’re not a member of your political party.