Whenever I sat down for my fifth-hour AP United States Government and Politics class in high school, I would brace myself. Here we go, I thought. Every day I reminded myself never to crack the eggshells I walked on or to care too much about the arbitrary arguments of my classmates. It’s just a high school class, I remembered, and you’re here for the grade. 

I recall one class where we had a “free day” to debate any subject of our choosing. Naturally, as most dramatic teenagers do, we selected the topic of abortion. Instead of partaking in the riveting dissension, I elected to illustrate the map of students in the order of those that talked. 

“Thank god I don’t have to do this,” I whispered to my table mate. As I predicted, the civility of the discourse lasted all of three minutes.

Leaving class that day, I didn’t think much about the dispute. I had merely gone through the motions for five months and had one hour left before school ended. I tended to avoid engaging in political issues for fear of being ridiculed, arrogant or both. Yet I wanted to speak up, to participate when the moment was right. Now, a year later, I realize that such a time rarely comes when it’s convenient. 

Creating these opportunities for ourselves to speak up is crucially important as they allow us to voice our opinions on our current state of democracy. Perhaps many of us have never been afforded this chance or, in a more complex sense, are unsure of how to do so. Starting an honest conversation is like Goldilocks: It’s either too blunt or too subtle, but never just right.

Eventually, the perpetual passiveness builds up. We release it in small bursts with social media posts and retweets, but that usually ends up creating more division than solidarity. So we push it back down, because nobody really cares anyway, right? We save our frustrations for a bigger fight, a more impactful event — such as attacking the U.S. Capitol.

I’ll spare you the details as I’m sure you’ve already watched, listened and read about it. It’s appalling and disgusting no matter the political party — or at least it should be. If we thought we had hit rock bottom before, then now we’re approaching some anarchist dystopia that will permanently rupture the well-being of our country. 

Yet, when my dad called me into his room and we watched a stunned Wolf Blitzer attempt to analyze the situation, I wasn’t in total shock. I was more or less unfazed, as if this was just another level of insanity we’ve reached. 

Perhaps this may seem cruel or flippant, but it’s hardly refutable. Yes, we could be better as a country, but right now we aren’t. Granted, I never thought it would come to what it has. This happened on our watch, and we’re left to deal with the consequences. It may not be about white privilege or how horribly some Republicans behave. It’s about large-scale political repression and how to reach its solution. Our feelings of anguish have overstayed their welcome. 

In these times, I think of the character of the U.S. and how, after unspeakable tragedies like 9/11, the nation bonded and turned its newfound unity into resilience. Such a healing transformation seems like a pipe dream at the moment. 

I also reflect on my U.S. government class, where a debate that appeared meaningless in the big picture actually served as a microcosm for our national and political polarization. I remember looking at the diagram of dialogue I had scribbled, a zigged-zagged representation of dished out one-liners and utter chaos. 

Most of all, I remember how I had voluntarily relinquished my stake in the discussion that day. 

I’m not sure what caused this sudden shift in action. Maybe over quarantine, I started listening and observing more — as we all should. More likely, however, is that I grew to dislike being an inactive citizen. I got tired of going through the same self-serving motions after catastrophic events. For our collective sake, I hope you are weary of doing so, too. 

Somewhere, a few years or a few decades ago, those rioters were sitting in a history or government class, too. A mock debate likely occurred there as well, and they probably had something to add. Yet the timing wasn’t right, or they feared being judged by their classmates. Annoyed by the bickering and constant attempts at political conformity, they swallowed their pride and remained silent. 

We cannot reasonably expect civil decency when we avoid true political engagement; any change seems futile or superficial. We must include everyone in our conversations and act mature with our responses. Until then, our feelings of anguish will live on. 

Sam Woiteshek can be reached at swoitesh@umich.edu. 

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