The art of being outspoken, accountable and uncomfortable
Just by existing today in 2021, you’ve seen some wild behavior in this country; either wildly entertaining, wildly stupid or just wild. Oftentimes, it can feel infuriating to watch this behavior go unchecked.
Looking at my social media from the last month alone, I watched an NDSU student throw a 20-person-plus maskless birthday party on the day with the highest coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. and another student get into an intense argument with their grandmother about ANTIFA being behind the capitol riots on Facebook.
Most recently, someone I know to identify as an LGBTQ+ ally posted a picture with a proud, and straight-identifying, MAGA supporter hanging out at a gay bar and tourist destination. This came only days after Trump revoked anti-discrimination protections from LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace.
These examples, of ignoring the pandemic, spreading false information or indulging in queer culture while supporting a candidate who works to destroy it, are just some situations I encountered recently. I would ask myself what it would say about me to speak up and address these behaviors, or more importantly, what it would say about me if I did nothing.
Ask any other individual who hasn’t had the good sense to stay off social media these last few weeks and they’ll have their own examples too. The social media age means, along with important and essential information being more readily available than ever, pandemic deniers, conspiracy theorists and white-supremacy-sympathizers are much more visible than they ever were before.
And opportunities to talk to these individuals and call out their hateful or inappropriate behavior has also never been more accessible.
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 brought forth a lot of important advice, such as encouraging people to address their own problematic behavior and call out the behavior of others. Accountability has always been important, but not in my lifetime have I seen individuals taking the time to have hard conversations with strangers, family members and loved ones like I have this past year.
Yet, something I’ve been struggling with lately, and having trouble articulating, is this feeling that I can’t do what is right and nice all at once. Calling someone out on being a complicit racist doesn’t feel nice. Telling a friend they’ve said something offensive doesn’t feel nice. In fact, a lot of people who are good at keeping their mouths shut are often considered very nice people.
But, at the same time, it seems impossible not to say something. How can you be a good person and let people get away with racism, homophobia, xenophobia or ableism? Or more specifically, how can you witness people supporting politics or policies that will damage the disenfranchised and our democracy? The answer is, you can’t.
So what do you do? Really, I have been working so hard to wrap my head around this. I value an identity as being a kind and good person, yet, when I stand up for what I think is right, people often tell me I’m not being very nice.
Not to make myself sound like a saint. I’ve written several articles with my tongue sharper than a sword, and in-person I don’t tend to mince words either. I know many people like this: they’re passionate, they’re empathic, but they’re also not afraid to call people out. And still, we often don’t view these identities of being a good person and being someone who holds others accountable as cohesive.
Niceness vs. Kindness
The problem is that we often value niceness over kindness. What I mean is we value the perception of being good over actions and words that will contribute to kindness on a grand scale. If you tell your great aunt to take down her Facebook post supporting the Capital riot, people in the comments might tell you you’re not being nice.
Yet, allowing such behavior to go unchecked is inherently unkind, in addition to being dangerous and irresponsible. Kindness is standing up for those who don’t have the platform you do. Kindness is meeting people where they stand and helping them see how they can be better with compassion. Kindness is not staying silent, staying stuck in your ways or staying comfortable.
For example, when individuals speak up for a cause, whether it be politics, activism or values, they are often told they are ostracizing those with opposing beliefs. They’re not being nice. When I’ve said I don’t see how individuals can condone Donald Trump’s actions or policies, I’ve been told I’m being a hypocrite. How can you claim to be open-minded and judge everyone who supports a certain candidate?
And this line of reasoning seems fair. How can good people denounce—outright—other individuals, even if they do, say or support something racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, etc.? Aren’t good people always supposed to see the good in others?
If you’ve encountered this, you know how hard it can be. If your values are driven by and for helping others, this idea that you’ve somehow failed by being judgemental or unfair really hurts. But the truth is you’re just experiencing the difference between niceness and kindness.
Speak out, stay accountable, and get uncomfortable
Niceness does not allow for honesty, accountability or even legitimacy. A nice person can have two very different inner and outer dispositions and still be considered nice. A kind person recognizes that calling out unkindness in others is an opportunity for growth. In fact, a kind person would welcome the opportunity to learn by being called out for their own unkind behavior.
Telling someone their actions are hurtful is not in itself hurtful, nor is it immoral. Oftentimes we refrain from saying or doing something because we don’t see it as our place to speak up; not because the wrong is unclear, but because it wouldn’t be nice to do so.
And it’s understandable. Not just here in North Dakota, the epicenter of niceness, but in the current state of the nation. The polarization and tension have never felt so high. When people call for unity and understanding, it’s hard not to give in.
It would be nice to forget the last year; to forget police brutality, Q-Anon conspiracies, racism on campus and hard conversations with people that forever changed the way you viewed them. That would be really nice.
But it would also be so problematic. Telling people that they’re wrong for feeling upset because you hurt, disenfranchised, marginalized and oppressed them is a form of gaslighting. And pretending like political opinions or personal values don’t define a person is an unbelievably privileged viewpoint.
You can be a good and kind person and speak up for what you believe is right. In fact, every idol in history who we look up to as being the epitome of goodness were also extremely outspoken individuals. Martin Luther King Jr. was outspoken against racial injustice and Jesus’ mantra of loving others was put in place to combat hate.
It’s not just acceptable to look for opportunities of kindness in your life, it’s essential. Look at ways to do what is right out in the world, yes, but also look at those closest to you, and most importantly, look at yourself. I could write an article much, much longer than this about the areas in my life where kindness has room to grow, but I really do try to address those at every available opportunity.
In the same way, we recognize unkindness in an individual we might label “two-faced,” we can’t ignore those individuals who bake us cookies, like our social media posts and smile when they see us, but have beliefs, thoughts and actions that damage the lives of others with less privilege and power.
Seek out the good
At the bottom of all this, kindness is about actively seeking good. Moving forward, you can’t sit idly by ignoring your own poor behavior, the behavior of your closest friends, and yes, even people who might seem like strangers. When you remain silent to injustice, you are a complicit contributor to that injustice. Saying something might not seem nice, but saying nothing is far more damaging.
Look at those values that are most important to you, and hopefully, one of those will be caring for others. This is a value without exception: you have to care for those with experiences both alike and unlike you, and especially those with less agency or privilege than you.
Ask yourself how you can be kind to those people. If you view yourself as an ally to people of color, to the LGBTQ+ community, to disabled individuals, to women, to those of different socioeconomic status and so on, what are they telling you is important to them? How are they voting? What policies are they supporting? And if those answers look different from your own, ask yourself why.
And if you find yourself in line with these views but know people in your life who don’t, ask them why too. I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, but I know, as a disabled woman who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, when I see someone who claims to be an ally but can’t have a conversation with their closest friends and family about views that threaten my well-being and human rights, their allyship isn’t worth very much to me.
The country and this state have had enough of niceness. Niceness is empty promises, lack of responsibility and stagnation. People often mistake those who disagree with them for stirring up trouble, and so often don’t see how painful it can be to have to constantly remind people they should have the kindness in their hearts to care about others.
I will take a relentlessly outspoken, passionate and kind individual over a nice one any day of the week. So be unforgivably kind, be brave, be the person others look to call out harmful behavior, large or small and have the confidence in yourself to know you’re doing the right thing. We have the ability to raise the standards of compassion, accountability and kindness in this country. I deeply urge you to do so.