I don’t wear political t-shirts anymore. It’s not a fear based decision, though that can be a factor these days. Why wear a target in these volatile times? It seems that everyone is packing a gun and bad tempers are more infectious than COVID-19. No, the answer is simple and boring. I’ve made this choice out of respect for the idea of community.
If you read my blog, you know that I don’t shy away from politics. I like discussing current events and how politics weave their way into our daily lives. The difference between this and that is that the reader can choose not to read. They can find something less political or happier out there in the blogosphere. I’m not in their face, whereas if I wear a t-shirt, that statement may unintentionally trigger someone and cause their blood pressure to spike. I won’t know that that’s because of a recent argument they had with their dad. I won’t know if my shirt might instantly remind someone of the reason they don’t speak to their best friend any more. We don’t need this stress in our lives. So if you see me on the street, that prime advertising space on my chest won’t be promoting politics. I’ll probably instead be a walking advertisement for my favorite tourist destination.
This came out of an “aha” moment a few years ago. I had purchased a shirt from Redbubble that read, “Science is not a liberal conspiracy,” with scientific tools lined up in a simple silhouette above. It was kind of cute. It was pink. Not super political, yet it was. I wore it to the local March for Science, where it fit in perfectly. Then I wore it to the local grocery store in my conservative, Trump-supporting town.
There was a man standing in front of me who looked very typical of people you see in my town. It’s a town full of hard working farming and logging families, and it shows in the slight roughness around the edges. I was the slightly rounded, middle-aged, suburban-raised woman proudly wearing my pink science t-shirt. We looked each other over, making our snap judgements before we resumed our silent queue.
The woman in front of us seemed to be having problems at the checkout. For some reason she couldn’t pay for all of her groceries. This man quickly stepped up and kindly offered to pay. I was humbled and felt immediately ashamed by the mini-stalemate that had just occurred. I knew that I had allowed my t-shirt to make me an “other” in his eyes, and I had let my own judgements make him an other in mine.
I relegated the shirt to the pajama pile.
Human brains are lazy organs. They are happy to make snap judgements, to categorize things into neat little boxes. We go along with it. Black/white. Good/bad. Happy/sad. But there is a lot of room in between. Those boxes we like to put people in have nonexistent sides of our own creation, yet how often we keep people there, virtually trapped in the place we’ve imprisoned them. My t-shirt was a wall of my own creation, cutting me off from another person with whom I might have found some commonalities.
I know choosing not to wear a political shirt is a very simplistic approach to a complex problem. I don’t wear the t-shirt, but I’m not giving up the face mask, which has unfortunately become a political dividing line. I am loathe to approach someone with any sort of Trump MAGA merchandising on their person or vehicle. My own brain has categorized them into aggressive, mindless, cult followers. Is that fair? Not necessarily, but it’s exhausting to battle the brain’s natural tendencies, and it often reboots to default. Letting go of the political t-shirt statements might give the brain the rest it needs to tackle the real dividing issues.
This leads me to wonder how the social climate might quiet down a little if everyone just decided to not wear political t-shirts out of respect for community. We might say no to tribalism. Instead, we could take a collective deep breath and talk to people. Tell them what we think is important. Listen to what they have to say. Have a civil dialogue, if at all possible. Maybe then we can start toward finding our way back toward finding what we have in common. And maybe if we choose to wear a souvenir travel shirt instead, we will find we have something other that politics to talk about.