About a week ago I went to see the recently released documentary on The Dixie Chicks, Shut up and Sing! The movie was quite enjoyable, and much of the reason I enjoyed it was because it had a lot of good music. However, I think what I appreciated about the movie the most was that its messages emotionally resonated with me on a number of levels.
For those unfamiliar with the events the documentary covers: Natalie Maines, the lead singer of The Dixie Chicks, made a comment critical of President Bush the month the Iraq war started (she stated that she was ashamed that the President was from her home state of Texas). Her comment triggered a huge backlash: people (primarily conservative country music fans) burned Dixie Chicks CD’s, boycotted concerts, and created such an uproar that most country music stations refused to play music from The Dixie Chick’s album at the time, which previous to Maines’ comment, was at the top of the music charts. The documentary Shut Up and Sing! examines these events, and it details how The Dixie Chicks emerged from the aftermath of the uproar as a different band (which was, ultimately, something they were happy about).
So, back to my response: On one level, this movie resonated with my own experience as a liberal, Iraq War-critic. No, I didn’t go through the same public scrutiny as The Dixie Chicks, and I would have framed my critique differently, but I relate to the feelings behind Maines’ sentiments. I stopped watching the news early in 2003 because I was so upset by the decisions being made by President Bush and the leadership surrounding him. I can understand why people were bothered by Maines’ comment, but it captured the betrayal I felt at the time: the leaders of the country were using ideals I believed in–liberty, freedom, justice–to act in ways that felt utterly and fundamentally wrong to me.
I also became frustrated with the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” rhetoric that supporters of Bush and of the war used against those who were crticial of the war and the presidency (rhetoric which the movie highlights). I did my best to understand and respect that others had moral convictions that led them to believe that we were right to get involved in Iraq, but it hurt to have these people say I was anti-American or anti-patriotic because I disagreed with them and with my political leader. In effect, they were saying, “even though you think you belong to our community, if you have a voice that is not the same as ours, you do not belong to our community.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the issue of enforced agreement within communities as well as the issue of exclusion. To a certain extent, you want homogeneity of belief, opinion, and pratice in a community because without the bonds created by similarity and unity your community will disintegrate. And sometimes you have to remove members from a community who are doing things that will harm the community. At the same time, I believe that healthy communities are ones that have ways that allow for disagreement, dissent, and questioning voices. It seems, though, that many communities have difficulty negotiating this issue of dissent from within. I’ve seen this over and over again in the church: people with unorthodox beliefs or questioning voices, no matter what their levels of activity and service, get labeled as “unfaithful.” And I’ve seen efforts to, if not completely exclude them from the community (since your average church member doesn’t have this power), make them feel as if they don’t belong in hopes that they’ll go away (I’m talking here about a variety of specific instances, not the church as a whole).
I guess what I’m wondering: why is it that questioning voices are often labeled as “disloyal”? When did agreement come to mean loyalty? Are there alternate ways of thinking about loyalty that would allow those who often find themselves in a space of questioning or disagreement to still find a place as a loyal citizen of the community? Also, how should we think about this issue of exclusion and inclusion? How far should we tolerate behavior that is destructive to a community before we start to think that exclusion is the best tactic?
Ultimately, I enjoyed Shut Up and Sing! because The Dixie Chicks didn’t “shut up and sing!” Despite the criticism (and the insults and the death threats), they didn’t abandon their personal convictions. I’m the first person to say “there’s a time and place for everything,” including dissent, critique, questions, etc. But I still do believe they have their time and place.
I also appreciated what the movie revealed about The Dixie Chick’s thoughts on the issue of communities and exclusion. On one hand, they were willing to walk away from the country music community because the country music fans, in effect, abandoned them. And in the end, The Dixie Chicks decided that there were other communities of music fans that would have them and where they would be happier. On the other hand, they refused to allow the critiques of their patriotism to stand. They insisted that they were still members of the community that is America, and insisted that they had a role and place in that community, even if it was at times unpopular. This movie increased my resolve to do my best to figure out how to claim the communities that I do belong to (i.e. the church, feminism, etc.) and to not let others who find me threatening define my relationship to these communities.