The dialog in my head beforehand ran something like this:
It’s ancient history. What could you possibly hope to gain by doing this?
Closure. I’d gain closure by respectfully reaching out, no matter what her response.
So I went ahead. I sent email to someone I hadn’t spoken to in twenty years, for unrelated reasons, who had caused me offense. I hit her up for an apology.
Too many tiny private acts just like this will doom Rush Limbaugh's career, if concerted grassroots action doesn't do it first. He's terrified. Rightly.
In my 700-word email to “Margo,” I re-introduced myself. I diplomatically refreshed her memory as to the particulars of the long-ago incident that had so disturbed me, clearly trying to empathize with her, to understand why she’d acted as she had. I revealed for the first time that her behavior had hurt me, and why, and told her what I wished she’d done instead. Then I zeroed in:
I‘d like to forgive you. I am writing to enlist your cooperation here: you’d make that easier by apologizing to me for needlessly inflicting pain.
I was acting to resolve an old incident that still troubled me, exactly as a therapist or self-help book would suggest that I do. These sources of wisdom would emphasize, rightly, that I "couldn't expect the other person to reply as I wanted them to, or at all," to a confrontational letter. Indeed, I wasn't anticipating anything from Margo. But I did what I did for another reason, something a therapist wouldn’t consider it their purview to discuss. Namely, my satisfaction at emailing Margo, depended partly on her reaction to my email, or my conjecture of that reaction. Whether she replied to me, I was asking Margo, many years' a stranger, to reflect on her past behavior. I was encouraging her to think anew about her actions’ particular consequences. With regard to the long-ago incident, and, howbeit subtly, in regard to the rest of her life, I was inviting Margo to change. I was acting in faith that she would.
We aren’t supposed to do this. We’ve heard unremittingly, even hysterically, from every quarter, in recent decades that “trying to change people” after our own wants is a very destructive business. Setting out to change somebody, we’re encroaching. We’re banging our head against the wall. We’re deluded, forlorn, and shameful.
There’s the folly of “trying to change somebody” in an intimate relationship, always and forever linked in popular understanding to “needing somebody to be a certain way, for your happiness.” Then there’s the effrontery of challenging friends, family, and co-workers, regarding whatever hurtful biases they manifest. The views expressed at the water cooler aren’t yours; they’re somebody else’s. They have a right to them. As surely, you and others have a right to clean air, free from Rush Limbaugh's cigar smoke.
“If you don’t mind, I find that joke troublesome. It demeans transgendered people.”
“Would you please not use that racist term in my presence anymore? Thanks.”
By the shocked stares, you’d wonder whose child you’d killed.
Rush Limbaugh hates busy-bodies who mind others’ speech. He hates what you did. We are so over-sensitive these days, and people are so into cherishing victimhood, that a regular, all-American guy can’t just be a guy anymore. You know?
Yeah, I know. Do I sympathize? Not really. The white-straight-male-supremacist baggage you insist on lugging around hurts many. It kills some. I won’t abet you in it anymore.
Pain is an evolutionary safety feature built in to each human being. Pain is good; its expression is instructive. It’s the ritual infliction of pain, and its ritual denial, by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, which actually result in “the culture of victimhood.” Speaking up about pain to people of good sense and goodwill, in the interests of getting them to backtrack, to re-consider, to change, cuts through the malaise Rush Limbaugh can’t see past. These tiny private acts, repeated unceasingly, rock this sick bully culture.
In my email, I took Margo to task, in detail, for “needlessly inflicting pain.” Please rewind that, and let it replay, word-by-word.
I’m glad I sent the email—to an address of which I was certain, by the way. I haven't heard back, but, oh, she’s read the thing. Now I can finally divest myself of this old incident, close it out, and move on. Beyond that, I’ve leaned on somebody to get them to change, in what I believe to be an honorable activist tradition. I'm as proud of that email as I was of finally pulling aside the colleague whom I'd heard issuing sexist jibes. I'd found it painfully awkward. I could tell he dreaded every word of my private admonishment, flushing, rolling his eyes and head, staring at the ground. Soon after that, my colleague went away, and I no longer had daily contact with him. But I remember that blush. I connected with his shame. I bet he checks his speech now.
Driving or taking out the trash, I smile, imagining Margo in front of a glowing computer screen, in a dark and quiet house somewhere, trying to reply to an email from somebody she once knew. It's late, her family is in bed. In my mind's eye, Margo sighs, and she finally goes to bed herself, her unfinished reply deleted. Yet she is thinking. Slipping between the sheets, Margo is envisioning how she might better thread a future situation like the one I described, for all concerned. For every single action in the universe, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Often, we don’t see the endless ripples we’ve cast, nudging someone else to behave and think as we believe is right.