When we get real with ourselves and tell the truth about what is going on, we are left with a dilemma from which many cower. We have to stare down our perceived powerlessness. So common is our “but who am I to do that?” that the question frequently does not even get vocalized. Our failures in accountability, from my perspective, stem from our ongoing misread of our personal power and control.
This is a small example, but perhaps an instructive one. Most semesters some students are wait-listed for an upper level university class that I teach. Among these there are one or two who will write ahead to find out if I will let them in the class. There are a couple more who will write and ask me to tell them if someone doesn’t show up on the first night. There are usually more who just give up if they are not notified by the first week of class that the list has been opened.
There are 40 students allowed in the class and I rarely end a semester with more than 37. Among those 37 there are always at least two who don’t call ahead of time, but come to the first class, participate, and stay after to request that I sign an add slip. Even if it means an overage, I always let these students in the class. I have never had a successful student who contacted me ahead of time to ask for a hand getting into the class. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with their request for consideration. I would argue, however, that their powerlessness shows up in other ways like timely assignments, adequate preparation for exams, and asking questions.
Such powerlessness is understandable. These students have been reinforced for being docile throughout their academic lives. Many are from working class families where they feel lucky to be in school at all. Their classes up till this point have sometimes had 200 or 300 students in a lecture hall. Even their advisors have been preoccupied with getting them to graduate instead of getting them to learn.
It is small wonder we are producing a a citizenry more familiar with complaining than with making social change.
Many of us in the US have reduced our personal and political power to a single annual or biannual vote. Many others have further reduced their power to an intention to vote, a complaint at the dinner table, or a Facebook repost. I recently did a small experiment in which I posted an out-of-focus selfie while wearing some new eyewear. In a matter of days the image had more than 80 Likes. I then posted a piece in support of abortion rights. In the same amount of time, there were eight. I know that my Facebook friends generally support reproductive choice, and my new glasses are great, but somehow my friends could not manage to read my post or click on Like.
While the small experiment is not scientific or even robust, it gets a bit to my point. Even our action is becoming inactive. Our robotic responses to calls to action are watered down to the point where an automated email to congress about something we barely understand seems bold. These situations take us even further from any solid recognition of our personal power.
I believe that when we aim at periodic voting as the height of our civic involvement, we are failing to recognize our power. We will get candidates like Donald Trump paraded before us because we have been snoozing. This past weekend I introduced some policital issues to my sister whom I love dearly and disagree with regularly. Somewhere in our flight to the middle class we tacitly agreed to avoid religion or politics in our conversations, however. That is until now. I cannot watch us be pitched into this new era of xenophobia without telling the truth.
Still, merely speaking truth underestimates my power to make a difference through action, and pulls me back from being accountable for outcomes.