Playing it safe

This past weekend, I was invited to attend a performance of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. Since 1998, The Vagina Monologues has been performed around the world as part of V-Day, a global activist movement intended to raise awareness and stop violence against women and girls. Some of the monologues, such as “My Angry Vagina,” “Because He Liked to Look at It,” and “The Little Coochi Snorcher that Could,” are raucously hilarious. Others, like “The Flood,” are funny, but they’re also kind of depressing. And a few are so painful that they’re hard to listen to – that one, for me, was “My Vagina Was My Village.” Horrible, painful stuff.

For me, the most powerful monologue was the one at the end, titled “ONE BILLION RISING” (deliberately printed in all caps). According to statistics compiled by the United Nations, one out of every three women on Earth will be raped or beaten in her lifetime – a number that is equivalent to one billion women and girls. “ONE BILLION RISING” was a call to action – to get up, stand up, and fight to end the violence. It was the monologue with the strongest political message. And at the end, the woman performing the monologue raised her voice, and said:

“Raise your fist in the air!”

Almost no one did. Then she said it again, her voice louder, reverberating off the walls:


I raised my fist. Then she screamed, as loud as she could:


I looked around, my fist still held high above my head. Among the several hundred people in the audience, only a handful had raised their fists.

This is The Vagina Monologues, I thought to myself. Why the hell isn’t anybody raising their fists?

Maybe the audience was confused. Is she saying “raise your fist in the air” as a metaphor, or does she REALLY want us to raise our fists? It’s not typical to be at a theater performance and be asked to raise your fist in the air – in fact, it’s kind of a norm violation. But frankly, it’s a benign norm violation – by breaking the norm of sitting with your hands in your lap, you’re certainly not hurting anyone. And anyway, if the audience really wasn’t sure how to respond, you’d think that yelling at the top of her lungs so the walls shook would have cleared up any remaining confusion.

So why, then, were people so hesitant to raise their fists?

Because they’re scared. It’s easy to sit quietly in a dark theater and enjoy the performance. Merely watching The Vagina Monologues is playing it safe. Speaking out against violence, taking action, being willing to be the lone voice in a crowd – that’s much harder. So often, we’d rather be accepted by the majority than stand up for what we believe in.

Picture this: You’re a participant in a research study, and you’re seated in a room with seven other people. You are each given a card that looks like the one below:

You are then asked to look at the test line (Exhibit 1) and identify which of the three comparison lines is the same length. This is easy, you think. Obviously it’s Line A.

“Line B,” says the first participant, with confidence in his voice.

What? you think. They must not be able to see straight.

“Line B,” says the second participant, with equal conviction.


“Line B,” says the third participant. And the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh.

Now it’s your turn. What do you say? Are you worried about sticking out like a sore thumb if you give a different answer? Are you starting to doubt yourself? Maybe I’m the one who can’t see straight, you might think.

And then you hear yourself saying, “Line B.” You decided to play it safe.

The seven other participants, as you’ve probably figured out, weren’t real participants. They were confederates in a classic study conducted by Solomon Asch, a social psychologist at Swarthmore University. Asch had coached these individuals in advance to deliberately give the wrong answer. Among the “real” participants – the ones who were in Seat #8 – 75% conformed to the group and gave the wrong answer at least once during the many trials that were administered. Almost one-third (32%) conformed every single time. They wanted to fit in and be accepted, and they were willing to give the wrong answer in order for that to happen. They, too, played it safe.

If you think about it, conformity is a powerful social tool. It’s the Great Enforcer – if social norms are going to be created and maintained, then you need some kind of social policing system that maintains law and order. Conformity is part of the arsenal of weapons that prevents – and punishes – any norm violations that might occur. Because, in our collective groupthink, nonconformity is analogous to disruption and danger – and the conformity police help to keep us safe.

But guess what?

Playing it safe is not safe.

Because playing it safe just reinforces oppressive, marginalizing, dehumanizing social norms. When we stay silent, or fail to take action, we’re essentially saying that the status quo is just fine with us. If, on the other hand, we want to end oppressive attitudes, behaviors, and institutional practices, we have to speak out and take action. And that, by definition, involves challenging and violating social norms.

If violence against women is the norm (and one billion female victims of violence sounds frighteningly normative), failing to take action to end the violence reinforces that norm.

If racism is the norm, and we choose to laugh at a racist joke rather than call out the person who made those oppressive comments, we act as co-conspirators in the service of status quo maintenance.

If homophobia, or biphobia, or transphobia are our collective norms, then remaining silent in the face of homo/bi/transphobic behaviors just maintains and reinforces those oppressive attitudes.

Lines on a card. In many ways, they’re so simple, even trivial. But they speak volumes about the powerful drive for social acceptance – and the challenges we as social change agents face. The famous essayist and poet Audre Lorde once said, “Oppression is as American as apple pie,” which is about as conformist as it gets.

But she also said this:

Your silence will not protect you.




Filed under anti-gay bullying, biphobia, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, psychological research, racism, sexism, transgender, transphobia, violence

8 responses to “Playing it safe

  1. Reblogged this on Sacrificial Tomato and commented:
    A lot of people have an unhealthy obsession with normalcy.

  2. Thanks for reblogging! I love it – “an unhealthy obsession with normalcy.” That should be a DSM diagnosis. 🙂

  3. Each week I read your blog and am amazed at the insight you provide on topics far reaching. What an educated and honest account of conforming to the norm. I applaud both the intense conviction of the performer’s call to rise up and be heard that evening at the “Vagina Monologues” and your words framing a compelling reason not to be silent—to defy the cycle of violence against women and gender oppression. Thank you.

  4. Lorri Doig

    It says a lot about how women my age were taught to behave — and I’m guessing that we have managed to pass much of that expectation on to our daughters. I’m forwarding to several people. Very powerful statement, Gayle. I’m so glad you are teaching the next generation.

    • Thanks, Lorrie! Many of the women of your generation were the feminist freedom fighters – the ones who helped us get what we have now. I think it’s easy to get complacent and rest on our laurels, oblivious to the idea that oppression still exists, and that privileges we have gained can easily be taken away.

  5. “Oppression is as American as apple pie.”

    I find this quotation to be foretelling, alarming, personally humiliating, and tragically spot-on. I know America is not even close to being the utopia I thought I was fighting for as a young soldier in Vietnam. I believe that our nation is culturally deteriorating because of a dark social and cultural issue as Gayle blogged about.

    We are terrified over even the remote possibility of losing control and power. Oppression is our default defense mechanism. We create repressive social norms to keep every human subjugated and powerless. By “we,” I am talking about the one American population demographic still possessing any hope of pursuing happiness unburdened by oppression–the white, protestant, heterosexual, American male. Being in control and having all the power is an aphrodisiac us. We are blessed by the higher authority to possess penises, using those gadgets like Bonobo Chimps at a monkey banana party, impregnating every female human we can get our hands on. We don’t even have to ask nicely since we can use a little oppression to take it. Most women will never tell anyone because we have done such an excellent job of manipulating the social norms to make her feel guilty and all her fault for being a female human.

    Regrettably, I am embarrassed to say I am a white straight American male. And I am a feminist thanks to Gayle (yes even a crusty old soldier can be one). In my view as a soldier feminist, if we are to create an authentic egalitarian American utopia, every single human who calls American home, must stand together equally to end the silence and fix the screwed up oppressive social norm problem. Furthermore, we men have to acknowledge and accept as true that the BS white male straight privilege we ignorantly presume grants us the supreme authority to corrupt and control all social power, is exactly that—bullshit.

    I am worried about America. What will our magnificent homeland look like when my grandchildren become new parents in 2033?

    I have some ideas to fix the problem, ending the silence, cleaning up the norms.

    Tony Lavelle

    • Thanks, Tony, for commenting! I don’t think there’s any reason to be embarrassed about being a white straight American male. What is problematic is when we fail to see oppression because we’re blinded by privilege, and when we fail to fight to end oppression because it’s too uncomfortable to do so. I am reminded of that all the time. And change won’t come if only women speak out – EVERYONE needs to speak out. Including the white straight American male soldiers. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Reblog: Playing it safe | Transilhouette

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