Sarah Smith Nessel — Next time you need a backbone, let Malala’s example be your inspiration

10/15/2013 4:39 PM

10/15/2013 4:39 PM

Usually, they whisper.

I’ll be at a social event or a school function, making small talk, when the whisperer leans in close. They all say pretty much the same thing: “I read your column. I agree with you. But I can’t say anything. Because … well, you know. Johnson County.”

Yes, I know. Johnson County. A conservative part of a bright-red state smack in the middle of America, where an awful lot of mental energy is spent on wondering, ‘What will the neighbors say?’

The little old ladies I remember from my Ozarks childhood would be proud of Johnson County. “Never discuss politics or religion in polite company,” they’d always say.

I remember hearing that advice at about age 6 and wondering what “polite company” was. Whatever it was, it sounded really boring. I knew that Watergate had to do with politics and Jesus had to do with religion, and any time grownups talked about Watergate or Jesus, things got a lot more heated and interesting, even if none of it made any sense.

Even as a child, I thought the politics-and-religion taboo was absurd. I didn’t have the language skills then to put it into words, but I do now: If you’re fearful of speaking your mind because of your friends’ potential reactions, you don’t need different topics. You need different friends.

When it comes to conversation, I’m a fan of the approach that the Kennedy family is said to have taken: Never come to the dinner table without an opinion. Politics and religion? Bring it on. Little wonder that you know all about the Kennedys and nothing about those polite little ladies in my hometown, whoever they were.

From time to time, I’ve wondered whether I should try to mellow a bit — to become a diplomatic builder of bridges, a uniter, a team leader. Could I be a non-controversial, civic-minded person who joins boards and organizes charity balls, who networks effortlessly and whose social calendar is perpetually full? Might I develop one of those refined-yet- approachable demeanors and a knack for putting people at ease? Could I ever be “polite company”?

Apparently not. Every attempt I’ve made has been a failure. But that’s fine, because while I admire those people and think the world needs far more of their type, that doesn’t mean it needs less of mine.

My husband is afflicted with the same characteristic. In just the past few months, he’s seen his posts removed from Facebook pages and has been asked to censor his comments at public meetings, so as not to make elected officials or others in attendance “uncomfortable.” Every time it happens, I channel Winston Churchill: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

What the world needs more of — much more of — is people who aren’t afraid to make enemies. People like Malala Yousafzai. She’s the Pakistani schoolgirl who dared to stand up to the Taliban and talk about politics and religion — namely, the right of girls to be educated. She took a bullet to the face for it, and lived to tell the story.

Don’t tell Malala what subjects to avoid in polite company. The next time you feel socially pressured not to express your opinion, think of her. Think about what a girl who stood up to one of the most repressive regimes the world has ever known would say if you tried to explain that you can’t really speak out because … well, you know. Johnson County.

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