A few weeks ago I seem to have put my foot in it, as I am sometimes wont to do. I am currently serving on a committee to which my colleagues elected me a year and a half ago. This committee is charged with hashing out the various issues on which administrators and faculty often disagree, but upon which we must come to resolution.
Over the years, I have been pressed by a variety of my colleagues to serve on this committee and I have resisted. I felt that I didn't necessarily have the skill set that was appropriate for this environment -- specifically, I felt that I was too
inclined toward compromise to be effective in representing the faculty interests. While on my last sabbatical, a couple of individuals approached me again and seriously spoke with me about serving on this committee. Their arguments were compelling and I gave in and agreed.
As they say, all things are learning experiences and this has been no exception. It turns out that I was right about my hesitation but for all the wrong reasons. I am inclined to compromise. I am also inclined to give second and third chances. In this venue, though, I have made it a point to put to the side my personal views and to seek out the views of my colleagues, those who chose me to represent them. And in representing others, there is an obligation to speak out where there might not be if you are only considering your own interests.
Recently I did just that. I spoke out. The fallout has been interesting, to say the least. Going into this circumstance I knew that I might need to speak up, though prayed I wouldn't have to. I am my parents' child, after all, and learning from two masters I prefer to avoid conflict whenever possible. However, I was prepared. I had done my research, reviewed my notes, and spoken with several faculty seeking out their opinions and perspectives before the meeting to make sure I wasn't speaking inaccurately. I even had my favorite Maggie Kuhn (founder of the Gray Panthers) quote written on my notes: "Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes." I needed Maggie's support.
After a current issue we are facing was presented and a certain perspective on that issue was expressed, I stood (shaking internally) and introduced myself. I specifically started my comments by saying that I had a different opinion and wanted to offer a different perspective. I then presented my perspective concisely, with specific pieces of evidence to support it. Upon finishing and sitting I was shocked to hear the previous speaker's response: "Well, now that Judy has called me a liar..."
Is that where we are now? Are we in a place where any opinion that differs from our own means the person expressing it is calling us a liar? Seriously? I was absolutely stunned. I also was quick to point out that no, I had not called him a liar, that what I had done was express a different opinion and had identified it as such. The response to this was a "well, whatever" and a reiteration of the previous point.
Since the meeting I have been approached by several individuals. I've received emails. I've received phone calls, even a few at home as those calling were nervous about expressing their opinion at the office where they might be overheard. Several people sought me out in my office, or caught me in the hallway or on the mall on their way to classes. All of of them (with one notable email exception chastising me soundly) were very supportive. The majority thanked me for speaking up on their behalf and for sharing the information I had. Others thanked me for speaking for them as they were uncomfortable or afraid to speak up for themselves. Many of them also questioned the reaction that I received.
One of the individuals to seek me out was apparently as confused as I was. He asked "What was that about?" and I used the opportunity to check my perceptions. I asked "Did I? Did I call him a liar? Because if I did, then I need to apologize." My colleague said "No, you didn't call him a liar. You said that you had a different opinion." After a moment's pause he went on to say "Although, now that I think of it, by saying that to you he was kind of calling you a liar!" I decided to let that slide - while that is certainly one way to interpret it I guess, I'm not looking to pick up offense around every corner.
It was an eye-opening experience to say the least. It has caused me to reflect on a number of things. I've thought about how easy it is to speak carelessly or thoughtlessly. I've thought about how easy it is to become overly certain of our own positions. I've thought about how thin-skinned we sometimes are and how easily we take offense, often when none is intended. And I've thought about truth and lies and ethics.
When I was elected to this position I knew it was a 2 year commitment. Six months into it, I knew I had been right to resist for all those years and also knew that this one term of 2 years would be my last. With 6 months left to go, it would be awfully tempting to simply give in -- be silenced, keep quiet, smile and nod, be agreeable and not make any waves. And while it would be the easy choice, I have to admit to myself that it wouldn't be the ethical one.
Opinions are just that - opinions. Some are popular and some are not. Some are welcome and some are not. Either way, expressing your opinion does not mean you are calling all others with a different opinion liars - and it doesn't mean you shouldn't speak - even if your voice is shaking.
49 minutes ago