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:
“RAISE YOUR FIST IN THE AIR!”
I raised my fist. Then she screamed, as loud as she could:
“RAISE YOUR FIST IN THE AIR!!!”
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.
Your silence will not protect you.