Since I was 17, I have been a very political person. Once I learned to speak, I often spoke my mind—but it’s one thing to have strong opinions about sports and quite another to have strong opinions about politics. While the former can lead to a drunken brawl, the latter can have even more lasting and serious consequences.
I will never know the full breadth of consequences resulting from my eagerness to speak up on matters of justice, but I do recall being passed on for at least one scholarship opportunity—and called an “uneducated radical” by a rumpled professor on the committee who likely got where he was by obediently staying in his lane for 40-plus years.
Then, there was the time I was a finalist for a different scholarship. I will never know the reason why I wasn’t selected, but I am quite certain it had something to do with my answer to the very last question I was asked in the interview. It was a question that was designed to throw off my momentum: Up until that question, I was poised to win it all.
I was forced into a trap in the form of a hypothetical that was flawed in the way it was presented. It assumed Iran possessed nuclear weapons in 2009 (which it did not and still does not), and it overestimated the power of the Iranian president, who does not have the final word on matters of war under Iranian law. I had a simple choice to make: I could answer the question without correcting the interviewer’s bogus assumptions—or I could correct them. I understood that by correcting them I ran the risk of sounding more smart-assed than smart and potentially offending the interviewer. However, by not correcting his assumptions, I was basically selling out as a self-declared man of peace who prided himself not only on empathizing with his so-called “enemies” but also conducting careful research (hence why I was seeking a graduate-level scholarship in the first place). Either because I was too naive at the time or too bold, I decided to correct him.
Consequently, I paid for my Master’s in Peace and Conflict Studies out of my own pocket.
My 30-plus years have taught me that regardless of how much this country prides itself on First Amendment rights to free speech and expression, most people would rather not listen to opinions they don’t agree with. I will take it further and say that most people would rather not expose themselves to any controversy whatsoever: My grandmother and uncle were perfectly content being (mindlessly) entertained for decades by television reruns—with little concern for current events or politics. I have even been told by family and friends to “keep it light” or refrain from discussing politics as if this tendency were a switch that could be turned off. I do not take vacations from serious issues and am not so narrow-minded as to limit my focus to my own problems day in and day out. My passion for social change is rooted in my personhood and cannot be easily curtailed.
I have many skills, but living comfortably with contradiction is not one of them. I am confused as to how so many people can work jobs whose missions go completely against their values, for example. And I am even more confused as to how so many people can support a politician, such as Trump, who denies the personhood of basically everyone who isn’t a white man—and then insist they are not racist for doing so. Then, there is the contradiction of refusing to engage in politics while refusing to acknowledge that inaction supports the status quo. As the late-great historian Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
Everyone is political. I choose to be open about it.
To be clear, “political” doesn’t mean partisan. It doesn’t mean Democrat or Republican, and it doesn’t mean incessantly discussing the 2020 elections more than a year before they begin. (While we are on the subject, though, I implore you to support Bernie Sanders, and ANY Democrat should Senator Sanders happen to lose the primaries.)
Political means caring about the world and its people—even in contexts where it’s not acceptable to care. It means standing up to your racist uncle, your sexist boss, or your homophobic shrink. It means educating yourself on the important issues of the day and allowing yourself to be convinced by those who are more educated. It means examining your privileges. And, yes, it means sacrificing some of the comforts of life.
Each Tuesday at noon EST, I will be shining a light onto a unique aspect of my identity hidden below the surface. I ask other writers to join me on this quest. Too often we think of “identity” in terms of physical traits, such as gender or race, and neglect the person within. Both sides of the political spectrum cultivate and manipulate identity to gain votes, but a more authentic identity politics entails more than succumbing to labels thrust on us by academics, politicians, and the media in other to further factitious or provincial causes. This series is a call for us as concerned citizens to determine our own labels and, consequently, our own causes.
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