A friend of mine once told me that one of the things she most respected about her partner was her ability to say, ‘I don’t know’. ‘I don’t know’ was the humility to admit her lack of knowledge and to acknowledge that some things just had not been thought through yet. It deserved respect because it was rare, indeed, it is rare to hear those three words.
This conversation took place a while ago but I recalled it recently when scrolling through the comments that get posted on my blog. Comments asking me to form opinions on everything and commenters outraged about my absence of opinion on completely unrelated topics. If I talk about my politics or reasons for dressing as I do, I am asked my opinion about why other women dress as they do. If I criticise European governments, policies or politics I am asked my opinion on non-European governments, policies and politics.
Sometimes I wonder whether, in some contexts, having no opinion is somewhat of a luxury. That the ability to throw hands up and admit an absence of thought or lack of consideration is something I might have been afforded more often if I was not a vocal brown Muslim woman vocal about being brown and Muslim and a woman. I wonder about how my lack of opinion on certain topics would ‘prove’ ignorance, thoughtlessness and bias which would consequently be reason enough to discount and disengage with what I say even about the things I do know about. To my mind, this indicates that our social identities and contexts determine the value of what we face losing if we fail to form opinions: the more marginalised, the more we have to lose.
And that’s the trap. People talk a lot about the humility of admitting lack of knowledge or that people form opinions too quickly and without enough thought. There is definitely some credence to both these things. But perhaps we must also acknowledge the pressure and demand for opinions to be formed and especially that pressure on marginalised people. (We must be critical about the ‘no opinion’ stance which can occasionally also act as covert approval of the status quo.)
The pressure for opinions to be formed threatens to discredit certain voices if they fail to justify and explain themselves in particular terms. Ironically, those terms often demand the intellectualisation of every single little issue thus making whole debates fairly elitist and often inaccessible. Consequently, those who are marginalised and vocal may sometimes find themselves in the position of reinforcing and reproducing exclusive politics even as they try to battle them.
This realisation struck me hardest amidst the ‘burkini-ban’ debate when I read this line: ‘wearing the hijab doesn’t always have a special significance; it’s often just a mundane part of daily life.’
Those words hit me because I heard in them a simple sincerity that I already knew to be true. I heard in them the sincerity of life lived complexly and straightforwardly, explainable and unexplainable. Those words reminded me that not every action or every choice or thought or word is or needs to be considered and justified. It reminded me that most people’s primary focus in life is getting by, living, surviving, making do and getting from one week to the next.
In being reminded so loudly of this fact I also realised even more clearly the different standards which people, particularly women, who are not white, cis, straight and able-bodied are held up to. In terms of feminism in particular, our lives and choices will be held up to special scrutiny searching for the ‘feminist’ impetus. The feeling I often have of needing to have an opinion is formed of the knowledge that an opinion will be asked of me, and if I fail to produce, I will risk not even being in the conversation next time.
It is in being part of this ongoing battle that I have often fallen into the trap of trying to justify everything and of over-intellectualising many things. Because of this, much time and energy which should be focused on liberation gets focused on justification. And more than that, this causes conversations which should be about liberation and inclusivity themselves to become exclusive and inaccessible to people who can’t or don’t articulate their needs and demands in the same way.
There is obviously an irony here. It is a product of the fact that whilst feminist and anti-racist groups attempt to address accessibility and inclusivity, they simultaneously face pressure to justify and debate their concerns in terms set by the places where power resides. These terms are inaccessible and this is something that perhaps requires more acknowledgement. It is a question of social and educational background and capital and if left unaddressed it risks the replication of power modes already practiced.
Perhaps we need new ways of articulating opinions, or a way to escape the pressure to always have to form them which derails important conversations and wastes energy. We must find ways to exist where we don’t owe the world answers for doing so and where we don’t respond to the unspoken jeer that to access power we must first justify our existences in the terms set by it.