top of page

Literacy and dissent: for Ruth Bader Ginsburg they were always inseparable

If anyone had told you six months ago that a pandemic that has killed close to 200,000 Americans would degenerate into a political issue, you'd have denied it. You would have been wrong.

In that respect the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg's passing has become a political issue is hardly surprising, but before the full politicization sets in (and it may already be too late), she deserves better.

When she told her own story, it was remarkably free of the toxic politics we are witnessing today. In a piece she wrote in 2016, Justice Ginsburg, attributed her equanimity and her success to four factors: (1) her mother who "counseled me constantly to be independent,' able to fend for myself, whatever fortune might have in store for me; (2) her teachers who underscored for her the need to use "the right word, and the right word order" because they made "an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea." (One of them was Vladimir Nabokov. Yes, that Nabokov.); (3) her professor of constitutional law, Gerald Gunther, who was determined to place this woman and mother of a four-year-old in a federal courtship...and did so; and (4) her husband Martin who, as she put it, "coached me through the birth of our son...was the first reader and critic of articles, speeches and briefs I drafted, and was at my side constantly, in and out of the hospital, during two long bouts with cancer."

Women advancing through the legal systemwere rare sixty years ago. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was still a young woman when the feminist movement gained traction in the 1960s, but she remained faithful to it throughout—remained involved in all oppressed and marginalized groups—people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community to name two. Over the past few years that battle has been particularly demanding, and the victories have been rare, but the honest dissent and well worded opinions never stopped coming.

Justice Ginsburg wasn't one to dispense advice, but once when asked if she had any to give, she simply said that in a marriage or on the court, "it helps sometimes to be a little deaf," for reacting in anger or annoyance to someone's unkindness will not advance one’s ability to persuade. We as outside observers may envision the Supreme Court as an arena where pitched battles occur daily, but in fact Ginsburg often praised the collegiality of the court—a place where any justice could speak out on matters in which he or she believed, and could confront those who held opposing viewpoints. Dissent was allowed and encouraged, provided it came with respect for the opponent's humanity. And she lived those words outside the court too. Aside from a love of opera, she and former justice Antonin Scalia shared very few similar viewpoints; but she often repeated and lived byone of his favorite expressions, "Get over it!" To her it was the key to collegiality and lasting relationships.

Everything these days invokes a political perspective, from wildfires to masks, and the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg at this particular moment will be no different. She would not have run from this fact, and neither should we. But our dissent cannot devolve into name-calling and ad hominem arguments—the two ignoble foundations on which Facebook and Twitter are founded. It doesn't work. She knew that.

So did Confucius who said that holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; in the end you are the one who gets burned.

Donald Trump wants us angry—holding the hot coals; Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted us informed and literate. If we can say we have learned anything from a good person's life, we can make our dissent—be they street protests, sit-ins, or marches—as forceful as always, but honest and respectful. That commitment will be a more fitting legacy for Justice Ginsburg than all the flags at half-staff and all the formal tributes to come.

18 views0 comments


bottom of page