The last few weeks have been busy in Washington, D.C. The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Supreme Court issued some really fantastic and some not so great decisions, and I spent my spare time making table decorations for my best friend’s wedding. All of this wall-to-wall action got me thinking about the question of calling the question: how does one know when it’s the right time to make the big ask, intervene, or give a situation a gentle push.
During the wedding planning, my friends and I joked that asking certain questions of the bride-to-be was like shaking a sleeping baby—the plain dumbest idea ever. In other contexts, however, it feels like some babies need to be shaken in order to make good progress. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, but upending the status quo does cause discomfort… and I suppose it could be said that ignorance is as akin to sleeping as social movements are to shaking someone awake.
The phrase “shit or get off the pot” comes to mind as a more direct way to describe this calling of the question. Depending on one’s line of work, my sense is that thoughts on calling the question vary widely, as does how the question itself is framed.
For example, many high profile LGBT rights advocates were actually pretty upset when the Prop 8 case was pushed toward the Supreme Court (by two straight dudes, by the way). Many thought it was not the time to press for a SCOTUS decision, and that waiting for the arch of the moral universe to bend just a little bit more toward justice was the most prudent course. In this instance, the naysayers and supporters alike within the LGBT policy community rallied behind the marriage fight to support the case they didn’t think could be won. In the end (though it’s really just the beginning), the SCOTUS denied standing in Prop 8 and we didn’t get the big ruling. It was a win, though, as was the work done by advocates who did not necessarily sign off on the effort in the first place.
Immigration advocates, on the other hand, seemed to be of one mind on the path forward in their fight for comprehensive immigration reform: the 2012 elections provided an opening for bipartisan action and if it didn’t happen early in President Obama’s second term, momentum would be lost. Of course, nothing is ever simple, and there were serious misgivings about how much could be compromised in order to get a bipartisan bill passed through the Senate. Family reunification was the goal for most of these advocates, but border security would be the high price to pay. Think moving the resources out of Afghanistan and straight to our southern border—earmarks to military contractors and fence builders. When it came down to the final bill that passed the Senate, calling the question became a matter of how much immigration advocates could stomach to get what they wanted.
Luckily, wedding table decorations are way less contentious than immigration reform or marriage equality. Weddings do, however, bring up a storm of emotions in both the bride and groom-to-be, as well as their families. I had the opportunity to view these emotional family dynamics as an outsider, and perhaps because of this, was able to see the full spectrum of interactions. Trying to figure out how best to support my friends and engage with their family members who needed a little steering got me thinking about human interactions, and how we decide when to plug in—when to challenge people, when to let things go, and how to approach a positive critique in the name of moving something forward rather than stagnating a relationship you care about.
When it comes down to it, many facets of life are tied up in these same issues. Whether it’s a wedding or a civil rights march, you have to decide when to push and how hard, when to lay off for the time being, and when to walk away. Perhaps this choice is the blessing and the curse of progressive organizing. There’s always a baby to shake, and there are always consequences of shitting on the pot.
The Pleasant Progressive