By Mary Coen

This is not “the best of times.” Anyone not living under a rock can list any number of issues that are stretching the fabric of our society to the ripping point: environmental extremes, the pandemic, the economy, vitriolic political partisanship, conspiracy theories, gun violence, voting rights suppression, racial inequalities, etc, etc, etc. Any sane response to the daily news has to be screaming frustration or a slow slide to zombieistic apathy. A common cry is ” why doesn’t somebody (Congress, the President, the doctors, the mayor, the superintendent, the police, the parents, the media, your mother) DO something?” The answer is that they all may be trying but that none of them can do it alone. While we are waiting for that happy convergence of work and luck and magical solutions, the other question is…” what are YOU doing?”

I know I’m not doing enough. Why not? There are many reasons, some even valid: “I don’t know what to do. I can’t make a difference. I don’t have the time, the right words or the whatever.”  Do I need to figure a way to work around them?  I think I do. I am a citizen of this country and a patriot, so I have a responsibility to do at least something. And I know that that responsibility belongs 100% to each one of us. Ethical studies show that when a single person is exposed to wrong-doing he is more apt to intervene than when he is part of a crowd. We know that when we are alone, we have to take 100% responsibility for our actions, but we often fall into the wrong thinking that when we have a partner, we are able to claim that we are only 50% responsible. So, it follows that if we are part of a crowd, we have only a slice of the responsibility for the outcome. The thinking often goes: ” Somebody is surely more capable than I am,” or ” Nobody is doing anything so I shouldn’t either,” or They must know something I don’t.”  This is the kind of paralysis that accounts for a person being attacked or even killed while onlookers do nothing. The converse of this is the instinct to break the rules with a compatriot so that there will be someone to share the blame with. (Think of your little brother/sister). We can overcome this instinct by setting ourselves up with ways to make it easier to do at least SOMETHING good. And if it works for you, go ahead and get a partner to conspire with. You will both get a 100% for civic responsibility.

It takes just a few minutes to go online to find the phone numbers of your congressional reps, both federal and state. (Or go to your library and ask them for help). Then tack the list someplace handy and use it. It only takes a minute to call and my experience is that the people who answer are polite and helpful. The same should hold true of local establishments. Your comment/question should be brief and concise. Then you can pat yourself on the back that you have done a CIVIC DUTY.

So, what should you call about? Whatever makes you passionately angry, or concerned, or hopeful. How do you not sound stupid? Go to a legitimate source of information -no, not Facebook, etc- and do a brief read. Again, if you are not feeling competent to do this on your own, go to your library. And you don’t have to do this for every contentious issue that’s out there. Just find the one(s) you’re passionate about, make up your mind where you stand on the issue and make a call. You can decide how often to do this, for instance, perhaps once a month on the months you don’t have to go the polls and vote. Will this matter? Maybe. I’ve been assured that elected officials do keep track of the interests of their voters. Other officials usually keep the public opinions in mind too. I know I have personally been afflicted with Illinois-Democratic-Complacency syndrome in the past, the belief that with two Democratic senators and a Democratic congressman representing Illinois in Washington I can simply sit back and have a liquid refreshment while they do their work without encouragement

I will keep reminding myself that in some cosmic sense it isn’t important if I believe that my call matters. History has a way of assigning the straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back randomly. Think of 13-year-old Greta Thunberg. Or George Floyd. Or a humble carpenter from Judea.

What about other kinds of activities? Can you stand up to behaviors and/or talk that is racist or cruel or misinformed? It certainly depends on the circumstances, but you can prepare yourself. If you find yourself in an ongoing social or work or even family situation that you strongly disagree with you can choose to make some kind of statement. People rarely stop saying things that you find offensive if you don’t tell them to. I know of a (white) woman whose colleagues used some racial slurs in the office. She told them that she objected to being exposed to that kind of talk in her work area and they stopped, or at least took it somewhere else. Speaking out sometimes gives others the nudge to do the same. And that can open a dialogue where there was none before.

You can learn to speak out in a public arena where you know what the issue is by doing the dreaded old school thing -homework. If you know someone is going to spout off some unacceptable ideas, you can put a few points on an index card ahead of time and read them off. Don’t hesitate to take your turn even if others speak out too. Numbers of voices count, and it’s good practice for your civic soul.

Now, what to do when you hear someone repeating lies or preaching conspiracy theories when accusing them of drinking the Kool-Aid won’t do? I usually challenge the lies on the basis of having multiple legitimate sources. I do this with the hope of causing some second thoughts in the minds of people overhearing, not necessarily the speaker. My three sources, (e.g., NYTimes, NBC and NPR, usually trump one Fox network. When I hear ignorance at work, I am tempted to tell them how Congress, medical science, the legal system, schools, etc. work, but I know from experience that that doesn’t mitigate any of their frustration.  Just acknowledging their feelings often gives me an opening to insert a little knowledge. But what about responding to someone who is really spewing hatred? It can encourage them to have an opponent. I remember that sometimes giving them one less member of an audience is the best insult. And I would still be doing my civic duty.