28 Dec How RBG made the medicine go down
We have an obligation to dissent. RBG teaches us how to do it successfully
Role models for weird people
If you are a bit odd (like me), where do you find role models that are a good fit for your oddness? I never did. Until now.
Let’s talk RBG.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice. I suddenly grasped the immensity of her existence. Not just her impact, but her entire reality. Unique. Focused. Intense. Aware that she saw the world differently from most and convinced she had it right. With striking clarity of mind. (What’s not to like?)
She is honored for many things. For winning cases. For arguing cases. For dissenting her losing cases.
Oh, the dissents! The legacy of RBG. She made dissent hip and famous. To me, that is a life-affirming boost. Because I dissent a lot: Traditions are beautiful and wonderful? I dissent. Mindfulness will save your life? I dissent. The ‘new normal’? I dissent.
RBG did a lot more than make dissent cool though. She achieved one remarkable thing: She proved the value of objection to advancing society – what other way is there? – and then, she demonstrated for us how to use it.
The entire culture is wrong
It starts with having a vision radically different from everything your culture promotes.
And then setting out to make the case that the culture – not you – is wrong. The entire culture is wrong.
How do you do that, when the majority is against you? When you never even yourself experienced the world that is so real – and feasible – in your imagination? When the culture will not even see you? And when it does, it is committed to ignoring you?
How do you get such confidence in your vision? Let’s count the ways:
RBG’s mother, who excelled in school, and graduated at 15, was not able to go to college. She had to get a job in the garment industry so she could pay for her brother to go to Cornell instead: The culture did not consider her own potential.
When her mother died of cervical cancer a day before Ruth graduated high school, she needed to mourn her. But her culture thought otherwise: She was a woman. She was not allowed into the group of Jewish men that was put together: Her grief does not count.
At Cornell, on a full scholarship, a professor tries to sell her a grade for sex. Her brains did not matter.
Her first week at Harvard Law she is asked: “Why do you think you deserve to take the place of a man at Harvard?”: Her potential is assumed lower than any one man’s potential.
She graduates at the top of the class. But she is a woman, Jewish, and a mother. 3 strikes. “We don’t want any lady lawyers here” they tell her. Never mind that she topped Harvard Law with a 4-year old at home, while also doing her cancer-stricken-husband’s class notes and homework: Her capacity for extraordinary focus, hard work, and brilliance can go to waste.
You see? That is how you get there. The injustices start adding up in your mind – if your mind is capable of that clarity that separates fact from blind belief and from resignation.
She found her way into the justice system, eventually. She sharpened the clarity of her vision: To ensure the statutory equality of men and women – in a world where women cannot have credit cards, lease properties, be astronauts or CEOs, and can be legally fired for getting pregnant. In that world, she comes up with the wholesale overthrow of the legal environment she, herself, came out of.
And RBG went beyond that: She also invented and demonstrated to us the tools to effect massive legal change. She understood how to make transformation happen.
How do you even articulate your arguments to a group of people who are not wired to receive them?
And I don’t mean that they are not intelligent. They clearly are. I mean that they are wired for survival into the known environment, their specific cultural baggage – because that’s what brains do. Brains are lazy (also known are ‘efficient’). They won’t expend the energy to build new connections if they don’t have to.
RBG figured out that revolutions don’t always work – they backfire – but evolutions can. She realized that she had to get into other people’s heads and get their brains to evolve.
How to get other people’s brains to evolve
She perfected her art of listening carefully, silently, patiently. She famously made genuine friends with Antonin Scalia – the ‘other side.’ In time, she surfaced all their objections and understood them. Most of them emotional, not rational: How could the men on the court give women any rights if they do not have to? It’s not logical, but it is highly emotional. No one gives up power voluntarily. So, she devised her most brilliant strategy yet:
She took on cases that argued not for women’s rights, but for men’s. In a breakthrough case, she argued for a father whose working wife had died. He wanted to be paid her social security so he could stay home and raise his child. The law at the time prescribed that benefits were only for mothers, not for fathers. Men were not allowed to get their working wives’ benefits. Injustice, she claimed. Discrimination against men.
How could they argue against a man’s equal right to benefits? She won. She set up the mental and legal framework for equal rights for all – without fighting for women. So the brain wiring started shifting. The rest is history. Little by little, she took down the entire edifice of male legal privilege.
“Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you”. Ruth Bader Ginsburg
That was RBG’s magic, and my new inspiration.
She made the medicine go down in the most delightful way
She understood when society had to get better, and exactly what the infection was. And then, she made that bitter medicine palatable to the status quo, by making it about them, by taking them by the hand – one little, hard-to-argue-with step outside their comfort zone at a time.
And so it is that this spoonful of a woman made the medicine go down in the most delightful way.
If, where others see normalcy, we see absurdity, we have an obligation to dissent. We’ve pinned down the ailment. RBG shows us the medicine.