Imagine if a miraculous alien was suddenly transported into our polite, neighborly conversations, to our dinner tables or into our schools, workplaces and places of faith. The alien is miraculous because it can speak English perfectly and can physically participate in our activities without much difference.
The alien wishes to be polite and diplomatic, so it observes table manners and learns to say "please" and "thank you," but its understanding of social niceties is limited. Imagine then that you are appointed as a cultural ambassador charged with guiding the guest through our world.
And because it is 2018, people ask you to above all else avoid involving the alien in the contentious politics of the times. We want to give the alien a good impression of earth's development and human society after all.
But unfortunately for you, the alien is very observant. First, you offer the alien something to eat and the alien asks what the dish served is.
"Chicken," you reply.
"Ah, an animal," the alien says, tasting politely. "You humans eat these animals. It's the way your world works."
"Many people eat only plants," you say, feeling a bit uncomfortable. The other guests at dinner also look disturbed. "Would you prefer something vegetarian?"
And someone mutters. "Getting political already."
The alien raises its equivalent of an eyebrow at you. "Oh, do some humans think it is better to eat plants than animals? Did you ask the plants how they feel about it?"
Someone mentions factory farming and the alien checks its research about earth.
"Oh dear, you're quite right," it remarks. "Factory farming is one of the things killing your planet. Those greenhouse emissions are causing wild fluctuations in your atmosphere. If you don't stop this type of agriculture and your use of fossil fuels, you'll be hard pressed to grow any food in a few decades. I hope those of you here are among the humans who don't contribute to such devastation."
Everyone stares at the alien and then down at their plates. The politicization of lunch isn't welcome.
After lunch you are ready to show the alien around. You go out to get into your car but the alien stops, staring at the vehicle. "Is there no other way to get there? Can't we walk or take one of your trains? This vehicle is contributing to the devastation of your planet."
The rest of the human delegation grumbles. More politics.
Somehow you persuade the alien to get into the car and you drive to a local high school. At this point the alien needs to go to the bathroom. They do that on their planet too, apparently. So you take the alien to the restrooms. But of course, there are two restrooms.
"Can I just use whichever one I want?" the alien asks.
"No!" you reach out a hand urgently to stop the alien. It is your job to keep the alien out of controversy after all and this is a school. There are few places where people are more concerned about gender separation at the toilet bowl. You explain about human gender, a bit about reproduction and that the bathrooms are segregated.
"Oh dear," the alien mutters. "Do you do reproduction in restrooms? Is it necessary to keep the young ones apart to prevent premature reproduction?"
"No no," you explain. "It just makes humans uncomfortable to share a restroom with the opposite gender. So, which are you? Female or male? Do you... er... grow the babies or fertilize the babies on your world?"
"Both," the alien replies. "We are a species with both of those parts in one individual."
It's hopelessly political to get your alien to the toilet, but you manage it (possibly by clearing everyone out of one of the bathrooms and declaring it temporarily genderfree).
The alien then follows you into a classroom and sits quietly for a while, listening to the teacher talk about the ten most important authors of the past century. When the teacher opens the class up for questions, the alien raises its hand (or equivalent appendage) and asks how the teacher determined that those were the most important authors of the previous century.
The teacher points to history books, popularity, cultural impacts and the wealth and fame of the authors. She is proud to point out that the list of ten authors includes one author of color and two women.
"But I just learned that your female gender makes up half of the population. Are they mostly too busy growing babies to write?" the alien asks innocently.
The teacher explains about historical inequalities and claims that we are now much more equal. She lists several more well-known female authors, though the alien is confused about why half of them use male pen names.
Then the alien asks why only one of the authors on the list is a person of color. The teacher tries the same method of explanation, but the alien stops her. "The vast majority of your planet is populated by people of color. Surely, they wrote things, even if you didn't know about it at the time."
The teacher explains about borders and nations and says that while she didn't actually say it, she meant this was a list of the most important authors from your country and... er... well, your allies, which are mostly white.
"Is this why you put so much of your resources into war and killing the humans on other parts of your planet?" the alien asks.
The teacher glares at you and the alien and states sternly that this is a discussion of literature, not politics, and you need to take your political rants elsewhere.
You leave school and head toward your workplace. On the way, the alien seeks to clarify its understanding. "These divisions are very important on your planet, I see. You divide people up into two genders and you have all these lines on the ground that divide people and it is very important what color your epidermis is. Why is this? Do different kinds of humans need very different things or have very different abilities?"
"No," you admit. "We don't. But people used to think that we were very different. We now know that we aren't. But some of the divisions remain."
"Even you were concerned about which restroom I should use," the alien says. "So you have not abandoned the divisions."
"That's true," you say. "I was trying not to get political."
"So, keeping one gender out of the other restroom is not political?" the alien asks. "And keeping hungry and endangered humans on the other side of a border is not political and letting them in would be? Bombing other humans is not political but talking about it is? Killing and eating either plants or animals isn't political but talking about it is? And killing your planet isn't political, but mentioning it is?"
"Yes, you're getting the idea," you sigh, already exhausted.
"You humans don't like it when something is about power or politics. I can tell that," the alien says. "I really want to be polite. How can I avoid political topics when it seems like they crop up everywhere?"
"You probably should avoid criticizing what we do," you mention hopefully.
The alien nods. This is good diplomatic advice.
At your workplace, you show the alien how the company you work for functions, all of the different jobs and you get into economics and how people work for money in order to then buy those things they need to survive.
The alien is quiet during a lot of this. Finally, it nods and does its equivalent of a smile. "I think I see now. You divide people into these groups by color and nation and gender, so that you know that mostly brown humans should do the hard jobs that get paid very little. Then they can pay to live in places that are broken, polluted and unsafe and eat food treated with chemicals that are destroying your planet. Some paler humans are also doing these hard jobs and living in these unsafe areas too and that causes a lot of strife. I can see now why you try to pay attention to the divisions."
Your colleagues stare at the alien with open-mouthed shock.
The alien continues. "I see that the pale females can do very busy jobs that get paid a bit more than the hard jobs. They are also close to the pale males, so that they can provide pleasure to the males.. Mostly the pale males make much more money and they do jobs that you feel are very important, but they mostly consist of sitting and telling the brown and female humans what to do."
Your superior who asked you to keep the alien out of politics gives you a meaningful glower.
You gently take the alien by something like a shoulder and move away from your colleagues. "I told you not to criticize us," you say with some irritation.
"I wasn't criticizing," the alien says, with a bewildered look in it's ocular nodes. "I was just checking to see that I understand these important realities of your world. I wouldn't want to wander into the wrong restroom or job."
"All right, whatever," you say. "Let's go someplace even you can't make political."
You take the alien to your community of faith. You belong to a spiritual path that is very tolerant, open-minded and apolitical. Surely, the alien can't find anything to criticize here.
You walk in and you are greeted by many different kinds of people. Everyone is friendly and loves meeting the alien. They all exchange pleasantries. It's true that mostly the white people are in the center of the room, talking loudly. People of color are there though. They are happy and fairly quiet. The leadership is shared between women and men. The female spiritual leader even does a lot of the talking, while the male leader sits, looking dignified.
The only person who cannot come in is your friend who uses a wheelchair, but several of the people in your faith community visit him at home. And there is a blind woman who sits at the back of the space. She is included by being there and she is well liked because she mostly smiles quietly.
You listen to an uplifting service about divine love and acceptance, about hope and reassurance for your purpose in life. What a relief! You are glad you came.
You look around to see how your alien friend liked this apolitical inspiration. The alien is doing the equivalent of putting its head in its hands and sobbing.
"I thought you said you didn't like being political!" the alien cries.
"This wasn't political. It wasn't about who is in power and who isn't," you explain. "This is a place where we find hope and peace."
"You find hope by continuing to destroy your planet at an alarming rate without mentioning it? You find peace by enforcing silence about the divisions and inequities in your daily lives?" The alien looks utterly confused. "This is all about power and politics."
There are infinite variations of what might happen in that scenario with the miraculous alien. But the bottom line is that what we consider to be political is all about who and what has the power to destroy or gain in our world. That is the heart of politics.
To stay silent on the most pressing issues of today, the divisions, injustices and destruction in our world is a brazenly political act. It is an open declaration of support for the existing divisions and the ongoing injustices and destruction.
Many institutions and groups today say they want members to refrain from bringing politics into the group or activity to avoid strife. Whether this is done in a community of faith, a school or other institution or a commercial enterprise, it is not politically neutral. Instead it is a declaration of a political position protecting the status quo.
Due to toxic rhetoric and events, many of us are exhausted. And this leads to many well-meaning calls for certain spaces to be apolitical, places where injustice, race-relations, environmental problems, human rights issues and war won't be discussed. These topics are stressful and painful for a lot of us.
The problem is that silence is not "neutral." And in fact there is often no "neutral." When the lives of vulnerable refugees, black boys on the streets or any other people are at stake and one side is engaged in killing them and another side is trying to stop the killing, there is no such thing as "neutral." You either defend those being harmed or you are supporting the injustice.
Likewise when one group is being publicly maligned and trashed because of characteristics they could not choose for themselves and that group is either absent or not strong enough to respond, there are no bystanders.
There is no neutral. If I do not speak up I become part of the bullying and so I have sometimes spoken up in spaces declared apolitical because to remain silent would be a political act.