About 15 years ago, I was in New York City at just the right moment to visit just the right friend who knew just the right person to get us on the guest list for the after-party that followed the taping of an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” As I imagine it would be for many Americans my age, this prospect was a dream come true. What could be cooler than hanging out with the cast, that night’s musical guest and other special someones who, like me, possessed the secret password to join the party?
We entered a dimly lit room. Most everyone was chatty, smiling, animated and expensively clothed, but I couldn’t help but feel an air of soft intimidation. I was doubtlessly projecting a little, but, if I had dreamed I might casually pal around or strike up a conversation with Fred Armisen or Amy Poehler, I suddenly knew that that sort of exchange could not be easily arranged. I’d longed my whole life long to not be out of my element at a moment like this. Reader, I was out of my element.
We were led to a table. The entourage within which I arrived was fused with the entourage of our host. Introductions were made. When a server appeared to take drink orders, this father of three panicked and ordered the same kind of beer as the person next to me. I strained to hear what others were saying and tried to chime in, if memory serves, with how much I, like our host, also admire Tom Waits, but feeling paralyzed by a desire to successfully audition for friendship with fame had me tongue-tied and actively throwing away my perceived shot at popular significance. In no time at all, it was time to leave.
I’d longed my whole life long to not be out of my element at a moment like this. Reader, I was out of my element.
But there was still the matter of paying for my beer. I asked aloud and was assured, in a hushed tone, that our host had picked up the tab. How nice of him! This gave me occasion to address him more personally and directly.
“Thanks for the drink,” I said. And as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew I’d made a bonehead move and outed myself as a mere civilian. He fixed upon me a bored, glassy stare that seemed to pay me more mind than I had gotten all evening. Had I violated an unwritten rule? Of course the person among us who’d just appeared on live television paid for drinks.
“You’re welcome,” he assured me. It felt like a door closing. I knew in my heart that I would not be exchanging contact information with a member of the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” I felt slighted, dwarfed and somehow imbued with something like shame.
I don’t think of this awkward exchange with a famous person I would never lay eyes on again as an indictment of anyone or anything, in particular, but it is helpful to remember a short, personal story of social anxiety as I try to sketch a broader one that I believe we have watched unfold over the last four years. It is a story about the alluring currency of access and, most of all, deferential fear at work among allegedly powerful people. Peer pressure, Patti Smith once remarked, is forever. I believe we have seen this proverb proven repeatedly, each and every day, in a cascade of news items.
Consider this: In October 2016, the American public was made privy to an “Access Hollywood” audio recording of then-candidate Donald J. Trump offering a detailed, gloating and graphic description of his own act of sexual assault. “When you’re a star,” he explained, “they let you do it.” For a day or two, his status as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party was in doubt. Paul Ryan disinvited Mr. Trump from a campaign rally. Mike and Karen Pence went radio silent. Difficult decisions confronted the cast of the G.O.P. brand. Surely this was a dealbreaker. How could the campaign or anyone associated with it continue under this dark cloud?
Peer pressure, Patti Smith once remarked, is forever. I believe we have seen this proverb proven repeatedly, each and every day, in a cascade of news items.
There were emerging indicators, however, of a power dynamic that seemed to counsel against decoupling. Mr. Ryan discovered that, absent Mr. Trump, he was practically booed off the stage of his own rally. When a gaggle of reporters entered a room to engage Mr. Trump in an impromptu news conference arranged by Steve Bannon on the night of the second debate, they were shocked to discover Mr. Trump seated with women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct: Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Kathy Shelton. Following Mr. Bannon’s lead, Mr. Trump narrated the scene: “These four very courageous women have asked to be here, and it was our honor to help them.”
At first blush, it was an eye-rubbingly strange sight, but it had a certain intuitive logic. Yes, Donald Trump is an unrepentant sexual assailant, but behold these women who had been treated like pariahs for years but whose allegations against Bill Clinton, we were made to visually recall, were never disproven. The presence of these popularly forgotten, aggrieved women on national television shocked the system with a narrative zoom-out, playing to latent guilt and dread in the American psyche. Had everyone who had applauded or partnered with Bill or Hillary Clinton been complicit in normalizing abuse all along? At the very least, our popular memory had proven highly selective, privileging some testimonies over others.
After they each shared statements of support for Mr. Trump, reporters who tried to ask about the “Access Hollywood” tape were shouted down by Paula Jones: “Why don’t you go ask Bill Clinton that? Go ahead and ask Hillary as well!”
And with that, everyone on Team Trump was, by all appearances, back on board.
Does the exercise of power require the suppression of conscience? It is exceedingly important that we refrain from trying to answer a question like this too quickly. We don’t have to be famous or hold elected office to meaningfully mull the social fact of access and how dear it is in every facet of life. Most of us learn to skim past certain facts, certain people, particular data we imagine might doom us in our effort to gain and maintain what we believe we need to live—were we to register or acknowledge them aloud. We act, speak and, to a large degree, see and think within the lines dictated by the perceived necessity of maintaining our overhead, which often involves studiously avoiding upsetting the wrong people.
Honoring your own conscience fully is difficult if you make your coin declining to go quite that far at every turn. We are free to say what we see and remember aloud what we remember—but only to a point.
Does the exercise of power require the suppression of conscience?
And what happens when someone crosses that line? Reality Winner saw a threat to our election integrity over three years ago and took action by leaking classified material to The Intercept. She has been muzzled and incarcerated by the United States government ever since. Why isn’t her act of conscience and the price she is paying for it talked about? I believe it has a lot to do with deferential fear, a default setting among millions of Americans who do not want to be perceived as overly biased, political or polarizing in every area of our public life.
“What an idiot,” Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump mused aloud concerning the fate of the convicted millionaire felon Harvey Weinstein on “S.N.L.” “He could have gotten away with all of it if only he’d gotten himself elected president.” Given what we have seen and experienced over the last four years, the alliances that have held in spite of every betrayal of the public good, this grimly candid conclusion concerning the moral debasement career Republicans would undergo to stay in the game by protecting their president from every form of moral accountability is hard to deny. Is there a lesson here?
Let’s return to the question of access and the suppression of conscience some forms of access seem to require. My brief evening in a shared space with cast members of “Saturday Night Live” was only unique in the sense that it offered a level of casual access to fame and fortune I hadn’t encountered before and haven’t stumbled into since. The memory of the evening has surfaced in recent years as I have tried to conjure feelings of empathy for elected officials, many of them millionaires, who have opted to suppress their own consciences repeatedly instead of risking words of public candor that might cost them their positions or their perceived standing. They appear to be set for life and are arguably among the freest people the world has ever seen, and yet a spirit of deferential fear appears to have dictated their every move down to today. How did this come to be?
I suspect we become what we sit still for, what we play along with and what we abide in our attempts to access more perceived power and more alleged influence. We become what we normalize. If association is currency, the trades we make to keep accruing it can be mistaken for leadership and prestige, and that which is truly essential is lost on us. A world of alleged security is gained but only through the frittering away of soul, that within each of us that is still capable of being moved, that which reminds us that we are human beings among human beings and that which, because we’re all kin, is ready to risk something for someone else’s good. If we don’t nurture that part of ourselves, it leaves us.
I am of the mind that true education is the consistent overcoming of deferential fear. Such fear is ubiquitous and chronically underestimated. At war with our best, freest selves, deferential fear saps us of any trust we might have in our own intuition, our truest perceptions and our truest judgments even as it pressures us to avoid sticking out. How can deferential fear be overcome?
If the Yiddish proverb is true and the heart is half a prophet, it can perhaps only be accessed with the affection of others, those who help us heal the other half too bullied and anxious to know its own worth, overwhelmed by the drive to hurry up and matter. But what place are we hoping to get to by playing it safe in the stories we tell and the voices we amplify? What spot do I hope to hold by declining to say what I see?
If the price of admission within my peer group is the frequent suppression of my own conscience, I would like to argue that the price is too high.
If the price of admission within my peer group is the frequent suppression of my own conscience, I would like to argue that the price is too high. One hard-won, ongoing lesson of the last four years, especially among those of us who are coming to see our own deep complicity in white supremacist thinking, is the realization that silence is complicity. How do I honor and heed the prophet within me when my fear compels me to keep it all hid? Slowly, creatively and, I imagine, sometimes suddenly, together with others, one brave and risky conversation at a time. In this, Thomas Merton offers a sanity-restoring word: “It is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” To believe this is to hold a sacred conception of culture within which the evasion of conscience and the avoidance of conflict are never acceptable means to some other end. The end is in the means.
What does the saving reality of personal relationships require of us? We need to make sure we are not letting deferential fear do our thinking for us. This is the challenge even when we are not confronting an attempted coup involving elected officials and political appointees refusing to concede after a presidential election. It appears before us in myriad settings throughout our lives: the pressure to keep the peace that is no peace, the pressure to play along. The problem here is civil obedience. Our presumed consent functions as a free pass for abuse.
“What devil possessed me that I behaved so well?” David Thoreau once asked himself. Do I know someone whose soul is ill-served by my deferential fear? In the land of the free, what do I owe people whose lives are endangered by my silence? Thinking through these questions and applying them to our contexts requires wisdom and discernment, but we are not without resources. Others have been here before. Same as it ever was. Come together. Education is forever.