Disclaimer: This post will include difficult topics such as racial and sex oppression, sterilization, homophobia, among others. The intent of this post is to discuss accepting the reality of these tragedies both historical and in the present day. However, it is also recognized that not everyone is in the right place to read about these matters in this format and medium, and that self-care comes first.
I want to start this post with a number of quotes. Each of these come from a majority decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the country:
“We think [black Americans] are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States” (Scott v. Sandford, 1857).
“The answer of the State is that night work of the kind prohibited [in restaurants], so injuriously affects the physical condition of women, and so threatens to impair their peculiar and natural functions, and so exposes them to the dangers and menaces incident to nightlife in large cities…” (Radice v. New York, 1924).
“That the Commonwealth is supporting in various institutions many defective persons who if now discharged would become a menace but if incapable of procreating might be discharged with safety and become self-supporting with benefit to themselves and to society, and that experience has shown that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity and imbecility”. (Buck v. Bell, 1927)
“Decisions of individuals relating to homosexual conduct have been subject to state intervention throughout the history of Western civilization. Condemnation of those practices is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards.” (Bowers v. Hardwick concurring opinion, 1986).
These are only a few select excerpts in my Law, Diversity, and Community in U.S. History readings among many I could’ve chosen from. Elected officials have passed laws that dehumanized and harmed people, courts have upheld such laws, and bureaucrats have administered and enforced them. From women being the legal property of their fathers and husbands, to grudgingly accepting the “political” and “legal” equality of all races only to promote “social” segregation, to systematically sterilizing the differently-abled, we have used faith, science, history, objectivity, and any other excuse to justify the wrongs we’ve committed. These wrongs are pervasive, deeply rooted, and enduring.
As public servants, how do we reconcile these heart wrenching, painful realities as we try to do better? How do we find the will to serve institutions that have in the past (and potentially in the present) committed what we find unacceptable?
Don’t. At least, not completely.
Unconditional love is not a requirement to work in the public sector. Our passion does not need to stem only from the positive, from what inspires us. We can also have a fire in our bellies stoked by what frustrates us, angers us, frightens us. We can administer programs, manage projects, build, design, and implement against what is wrong just as readily as to defend and create what’s good.
There are some things that do not have silver linings, and it’s healthier to be hurt than to be indifferent. We can and should feel outraged in the face of the outrageous, can and should feel indignant in the face of indignities. Stoic, objective neutrality is not a universal standard that should be applied to every situation.
Reading upon what has happened, and what is happening, allows us to learn. We become more aware, more knowledgeable, more whole even (and especially) when what we observe rattles our sensibilities. Reading about intolerance and hate can make us feel helpless but learning in and of itself is a power we can wield. We can drive our restless energy to dig even deeper.
Analyze, investigate, scrutinize, evaluate. Consider the heart wrenching from a historical position, a sociological position, as a citizen, as a family member, and of course from a local government context. The more we learn, the more we are enabled to make the difference we want.
Just as we can develop friendships and networks based on shared interests, so too can we connect to one another over difficulties. We can use these hard lessons as a tool to help us empathize and understand people who struggle both similarly and differently than ourselves. We can fill up the empty space left behind from letting go of romantic, unrealistic notions of our society through genuine human relationships.
It doesn’t all have to be lifelong friendships. It’s giving a woman a little more physical space in the aisle knowing the realities of harassment, it’s offering a smile and nod to a member of a minority group knowing they may have just earlier been subject to microaggressions. Connecting means the small, everyday acts too.
As much as I want to offer a specific, reliable way to heal, that is beyond me. As someone in a very privileged place, how I can heal from these realities is likely very different than what it will take for those who face constant disenfranchisement. We are all individuals, and where one person can heal and grow from dedication and hard work, another will need rest and reflection. For some of us, the path to healing may be faster and absolute, for others, it may be a lifelong journey.
However we can heal, self-care remains important as ever as we reconcile with these difficult matters. Take what opportunities we can to be good to ourselves and create opportunities for others to do so as well.
Learn, connect, heal, and embrace the passion that the heart wrenching instills in us.