Last week, I found myself on a surprise friend date with one of my next-door neighbors, whom I'd run into on my way to coffee. At one point, we were talking about something -- I think it was thrifting, maybe? -- when she said, sort of out of nowhere, "Well, you're a pretty big feminist, aren't you?"
My first thought, weirdly, was Wait, how'd she know? Most of our conversation thus far had been about cheap restaurants in the neighborhood and/or "Adventure Time," and though I'd told her I write for the Internet I hadn't been specific about the site or my usual "beat." I guess something clued her in anyway. Possibly the side-shave.
My second thought, equally weirdly, was Uh-oh, she knows. Like being pretty unyielding about issues like reproductive rights and anti-classism was something I was going to have to ease her into.
My final thought, way too late, was Oh good, she knows. Because frankly, I'm a big old feminist grump about a lot of things. If I was going to hang with this girl in the future, she was going to find that out sooner rather than later.
After way too long of a silence, I said, "Yup," like it brooked no disagreement. She grinned at me, and we moved onto other topics.
Later, though, I thought about that initial hesitation. Since I moved to a new place, I've been trying my best to take advantage of the opportunity by making friends with as many people as I can. This means a lot of chances, in turn, to make first impressions on people. And sometimes, I find myself trying to cast myself as Conway-lite: My impulse isn't exactly to lie, because there's no point in the long run, but it is to downplay things that are actually really important to me.
As I've met new people and gone on a few dates, almost identical versions of that conversation keep taking place. And every time, I have that little blip of "Maybe I should play it safe" before pushing past it.
This wasn't always the case. When I was around 11 or so and first became a vegetarian, I went through a phase where I truly did not care whether people thought I was a huge weirdo (spoiler: they did). I'd wear shirts with sassy pro-veg slogans on them (one said "NO, I DON'T EAT MEAT / YES, I GET ENOUGH PROTEIN / NO, MY SHOES AREN'T LEATHER / YES, I HAVE A LIFE") and clomp around my middle school in plastic combat boots to lecture people on how the meat they were eating got on their plates.
Annoying? Absolutely. I'm not into having people lecture me on my food, so now that I'm no longer a preteen, I don't lecture people on theirs.
But there's a part of me that misses having the ability to just lay all my cards out on the table like that.
I was also reminded of this when I read about this study from the University of Toronto, which states that people who witness "activist" behavior, particularly on the environmentalism and feminism fronts, are actually less inclined to agree with those principles because they view those activists as "obnoxious."
I think this attitude is rooted in two factors: Firstly, that people are dicks who correlate someone's likability with the validity of their opinions. This goes hand in hand with tone-policing -- i.e., "More people would listen to you if you were just a little nicer!" -- and it's bullshit.
But setting aside the whining that privileged people like to indulge in when they're not being gently led by the hand to a possibly paradigm-shifting revelation, I think that a lot of people have an aversion to sincere, bone-deep belief. Maybe this is just because I hang around with a lot of cynics, but it seems like the idea of being "cool" conveys a certain level of disconnect that's impossible to achieve when weeping over public policy.
The thing is, when you devote yourself to something like activism, you're opening yourself up to a lot of emotional vulnerability for the sake of working against a power structure. That's a pretty brave thing to do, and I don't think people (myself included) like to be reminded of the fact that they themselves aren't being very brave.
So they write it off as "annoying" instead, because it's easier to face than the fact that someone is making them look like a coward. I know I've done this, especially as an adolescent: when confronted with someone bent on reminding me of an uncomfortable truth, I've disregarded them as "too intense" rather than accept that discomfort and try to learn from it.
Which is not to say that passion is uncool. Passion can be very "cool," as long as it's for things that don't perceptibly threaten any status quo. Being really into canning or collecting bat memorabilia are charming hobbies. Being really into calling out sexism in mainstream media is scary, and therefore "obnoxious."
After my seventh-grade year of friendlessness, I definitely let my need to be liked take over actually standing up for my principles for a while. Especially in high school, I tended to swallow my anger in the face of reprehensible behavior rather than call my friends out on it and take the chance of getting shunned. It's only been in the last few years that I've started to actively risk pissing people off (or even worse, weirding them out) in order to stand by my beliefs.
Sometimes this isn't always possible, obviously, particularly where one's safety is concerned. And there's a difference between standing firm in one's convictions and refusing to critique one's system of beliefs for its weaknesses.
But I can't write off my own inclination to mumble away a question like "So you're really into feminism?" in a one-on-one conversation in a coffee shop as anything but cowardice. I am into (intersectional, inclusive) feminism, and to pretend otherwise for the sake of making a friend is just me succumbing to that fear of being "uncool."
Kate shan't compromise her beliefs on Twitter: @katchatters.