Katherine Tyler Scott is a Fellow of the International Leadership Association, and closer to home, a board member of Women4Change Indiana. She chairs a committee of that latter organization on which I serve, and recently she shared with me an essay she’d written for a publication of the former.
It deserves wider distribution.
The essay focused on a lessons we should take from the war in Ukraine–especially the power of voice.
To those of us who share Katherine’s belief that we must oppose injustice and oppression “in any form, against anyone, anywhere”. she has a message: she argues that silence in such instances is unacceptable.
Many people around the world filled the streets and exercised their voices in protest of the public murder of George Floyd. It was impossible to turn away and not see what was in plain sight, to deny how the long history of dehumanization had contributed to the knee of oppression. We are called now to do the same on behalf of humanity. In America, the value of freedom is etched on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, cited in the Declaration of Independence, codified in the United States Constitution, and sustained by civic engagement. Our diversity does not discount the universal desire for freedom. This basic right to which every human being is entitled is always at risk of attack. Events, unforeseen or planned, can create major disruption and insecurity alongside crippling levels of anxiety and fear — states of emotionality in which people are willing to trade their freedom for the quick fix.
Katherine attributes the rise of autocracies around the globe to the pervasive, chronic anxiety that seems to accompany social change–a state that makes systems of any kind vulnerable, unable to cope productively with that change.
But then she notes Ukraine’s fierce resistance to Russia in defense of freedom.
The Ukrainian President and the country’s citizens have been subject to these same dynamics and forces of change yet have become an inspiring counter to a loss of the ability to cope. Why?
In large part, it is because of collective aspirations, shared core beliefs, a strong identity as a people, and an understanding of the desire to become a country where people can be free. These are powerful determinants of response, but all become more powerful when they are given voice. President Volodymyr Zelensky is that voice for his country and for millions around the world. In using it, he has galvanized people across the globe to remember what matters and what is required when civilization is under threat. A major mitigating factor to society’s chronic anxiety is the self-differentiated leader, and we are seeing it in Zelensky. He reminds us of the power of voice — one and many. We are seeing why words matter. His voice, his words, have encapsulated the universal yearning of humanity: to live, to live free, and in doing so, to have the opportunity to live a life of meaning — a life that matters and makes a difference.
This emphasis on voice really resonated with me, because voice is the one weapon possessed by ordinary Americans. Those of us without piles of money or offices of influence often despair of making a difference; I know that I look at aspects of our collective life that I consider dangerous or forbidding and feel helpless to oppose or change them.
I lack the power to keep Indiana’s legislators from distorting the operation of democratic accountability by choosing their voters. I cannot “reprogram” a racist MAGA movement, or keep the planet from warming, or “fix” other multiple threats to democracy, civility and the rule of law. Neither can most of the other Americans who wring their hands over these and other ominous and worrisome aspects of our collective life.
But we do have our voices, and Katherine reminds us that those voices matter—that raising them will make a difference.
The recent protests in Iran and China moved even those autocratic governments–Iran has reportedly abolished its Morality Police (although there are conflicting reports of that), and China has relaxed its draconian COVID policies. Small steps, admittedly, but evidence of the truth of Katherine’s observation.
At the very least, we need to remember that citizens’ voices–through letters and emails to legislators and other public officials, through demonstrations, through civic organizations, through lawsuits–can attest to our lack of acquiescence with an unacceptable status quo. Our voices can also encourage our fellow-citizens to raise theirs.
As Zelensky has demonstrated, words matter.