(Don't) Stay In Your Lane

Nov 16, 2018

Used to be you’d hear about news first by turning on the news. But this week’s “Stay in your Lane” episode unfolded on Twitter a day before it jumped to traditional magazine and radio journalism. However, none of it involved the ordinary way we use those four emphatic words.

You know the drill. Up ahead on the big divided highway to Chicago, a driver is doing who knows what in the privacy of his car: glancing at a road map, helping himself from a big red cardboard sleeve of French fries, or texting something smoochy to his sweetheart. Distracted, he lets two tons of potential chaos drift across the painted line. Stay in your lane, we say at times like that, but maybe we say it a little spicier or we hammer it out on the car horn. Stay in your lane because it literally matters.

But this week a writer running social media for the National Rifle Association transferred the familiar phrase over into the realm of metaphor. A medical journal had published some articles in favor of stronger gun control measures, which the NRA answered with an article of rebuttal. Publicizing their article, the NRA’s house poet tweeted out a pithy and metaphorical command to doctors. “Stay in your lane,” the tweet said. In other words, mind your own business. We are the experts here. Let us handle this public issue.

That tweet poked a bee hive, and out came a swarm of up-at-all hours emergency room doctors with stories and science about the shattered bodies and shattered families they try to heal daily. Some tweets included post-crisis snapshots of doctors standing soberly among the tools of their work space, with everything and everyone still stained in shocking crimson. This IS our lane, the emergency room doctors tweeted back, metaphorically telling us, “When it comes to gun violence, we know first-hand what we are talking about. And the time has come for us to speak.”

The next morning “Stay in your lane” was on the regular news shows. And in the days since then this new meaning of the phrase has shown itself repeatedly. I went to a talk at The Civil Rights Heritage Center, in the old South Bend Natatorium where for more than a generation the city’s swimming pool served only white residents. Those were years when racial segregation was probably the country’s cruelest, most blatant “Stay in your lane” message. During the frank conversation that night people strategized about challenging the quieter “Stay in your lane” separations of race and class that continue to this day.

I remembered a friend working in Washington, DC, some years ago. His small business inadvertently set up shop in the economic domain of a political family whose name you’d recognize. Keep your hands off our territory, they were warned by the relative of a famous politician. Stay in your lane.

But I am encouraged by today’s college students. In a class on dealing with climate change, environmental science students strategized about sharing their solid research findings with the world, repackaging good science into op-ed pieces that would help voters and policy makers protect the planet. I could tell that some of the students in that lab had rejected the domestication so common in our education system. No play-it-safe, Stay-in-your-lane life for them. They intend to have public voices.

And in my own class on active citizenship, I realized we had been studying the Stay-in-your-lane power struggle all along. In our case studies we saw that powerful people love the silence of others, but these young adults don’t approve of that. The students asked me to remind you to trust the evidence of your experience and know that others can’t really represent you. There won’t be progress and change, they said, unless people step out of their lane and start to speak. And don’t wait, they said. Start now.