My Grandma Amanda was the baddest bitch I’ve ever known. She crawled out of a brutal depression poverty. She rode on a motorcycle through Prague when the Iron Curtain still divided Europe. She divorced her philandering husband when this was still a radical act for women in the 70s. She became a single mother and raised two incredibly unruly half white boys in the depths of poverty rather than endure the humiliation she had experienced under her husband. She had put that same husband through medical school while working at one of the most challenging residential programs for the mentally ill in the state. Her patients had killed people in fits of madness. My Grandma Amanda was a tireless advocate for the poor, women and the mentally ill. She stepped into my life at 15, when I was a very scared, very traumatized young woman on the cusp of making life ruining decisions in a place where the stakes were death and rape and sex trafficking. She took me under her wing, pushed me to imagine myself as so much more than I was and supported me through the rough years of Stanford as I tried to navigate a world of unimaginable privilege from a background where I was simply grateful for food. I would not be half the woman I am today without her.
She happened to be an O’Reilly loving conservative. She was so conservative that the first time I read Ann Coulter’s work was when she handed it to me at 16. By the end of high school I had gotten used to sitting at our kitchen table, her cigarette smoke surrounding me, as my parents, my grandma and I discussed the world’s problems and attempted to find common ground amongst our viewpoints. As I became radicalized in college, she pushed and validated me in a million ways over the holidays when I went home. Before I could make my points to my friends at Stanford, I had to make them with her. Very often, I won her over but more often she forced me to get better at my own argumentation.
As I went off to college, I had no idea how radical my upbringing had been. My parents were punk veterans from the 80s, my mom had refused to let me watch Pocahontas because she said it was racist. When I learned about Civil Right’s I learned about how important the Panthers were and I was raised in incredibly diverse neighborhoods. But for me, this was normal, and I was very used to having to make my perspective understandable to people because I had been trained to do so at my schools, and at my home. I walked into campus and found myself having discussions advocating, usually successfully, for resources for poor students on campus among some of the wealthiest people in my generation. You could find me at any frat party, drinking beer and slowly convincing people that activism for the poor and resources for the poor needed to exist.
I have my grandmother to thank for all of this, for her love taught me that most people are good and have good hearts. She taught me that I could be wrong, but also that I could be forcefully and respectfully right. She taught me to translate my words into things that anyone could understand and to find common ground. She implicitly taught me the rules and logic of argumentation, augmenting what was a natural skill-set from my working class roots where wit confers status and where “talking shit” is the highest art form.
As I entered the classroom, I thought of her often. I also thought of the boys I had left back home and encountered in the faces of my students. Those rebellious shitheads. I’ve always had a soft spot for them because I am one. They were right to push back against being told what to think. I wanted them to have that freedom, and I also wanted them to reach the right conclusions. I accomplished this goal by trusting them to be smart enough to reach it with the right information and with the training to think. After all, if my perspective was based in evidence, and it most certainly was, I should be able to make my case to just about anyone.
My time in the classroom proved these lessons correct, as by the end of the year I had watched otherwise racist students become more compassionate and enlightened classmates. I watched kids who had felt apart from each other come together. And I had watched them bloom into brilliant thinkers and writers that I was proud and fortunate to be part of sending out into the world.
Thought leads to action, so at a certain point, I accepted the responsibility of the intellectual. That as someone with the incredibly rare access to the levers that create thought, I have a deep responsibility to my community to use that position to change the way they are thought about. I’ve come to learn that argumentation is the best way to do that, because that is essentially the underlying driver of culture. Culture is defined by our belief systems, and argumentation is one way those beliefs are shaped. There are a lot ways to persuade people of something, but for a world view to be successful it needs to be argued on all fronts, from the courtroom to the stand up comic’s stage. There are of course other, more violent and destructive, ways to change thought. Forced conversions, purges, massacres and on and on have all been used in the name of ideology to win the war of ideas. But my goal remains to fight for an ideology where these means are unconscionable for those actions are the very root of oppression. My goal is for everyone to be free, and I’ve never felt that that goal was somehow mutually exclusive with justice for everyone or mutually exclusive of the care of each other. I am also unwilling to trade one system of oppression for another.
This journey led me to the ultimate conclusion that I had a responsibility to craft my messages carefully. I’ve failed in this task over and over again as any writer and thinker does, but it is a goal I strive for. Although it brings me immense personal joy to write, to continue winning at the art of “shit talking,” and to do research, the main reason I feel this strong pull towards that goal is because I know how much power ideas and words can have. I know that there are very few voices like mine, that I represent more people than just myself, and that I have a responsibility to others to utilize my gifts for the common good.
I’ll never be the one to tell you how to think, but I hope that I’ve convinced you to think more deeply about your role, and more deeply about the work you produce as an activist. If it isn’t the best that can be done for the people, it is not serving the people. We have everything in our argument, evidence, logic, and values that one needs to win an argument. We do not need to resort to other means to get our point across because our viewpoint is that strong. But we cannot succeed in this task alone, we all have to work together to get better and better as if our lives and the lives of the people we work on behalf of depends on it. In many cases, in many causes that is no overdramatization. But we must approach this work from an ethos of love as well, for love is what we hope will be the guiding ethos for the world we create and if we wish to create it, we must create it in both action and deed alike. It begins with empathy, compassion and listening. It begins in those kitchen table conversations with the people who loved you even when they disagreed with you. And the people who heard your viewpoint even when it was terrifying and new. And the deeply flawed human beings who get up everyday and are often struggling in a million visible and invisible ways but who also demonstrate kindness towards their communities. Where there is a decent heart, its center can be reached by other decent hearts. Most hearts, I assure you after all these years of evidence to the contrary, most hearts are decent and beautiful and open to learning. But they cannot learn until they’ve been loved.