An Uncivilized Discourse

Whatever happened to respectful disagreements?

Apparently, when it comes to political rallies, policy discussions, or even within the walls of our political institutions, respectfully disagreeing with someone has gone the way of the dodo.

Eggs are getting tossed by protesters outside political rallies. Journalists are being roughed up at rallies. Names are being called. Insults are being hurled. In short, humans are doing something they’re very good at, but like to think is an exception to the rule: they’re being assholes.

Let’s face it: historically, people have gone out of their way to be jerks to those who aren’t like them or hold different opinions. I mean, even the British House of Commons has two white lines on the floor so that the politicians are more than two sword lengths apart from each other. But you’ve got to believe that we’re closer than ever to a pistol duel between two members of congress than we have been since Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton.

Can’t we all just get along?

We all know what the problem is: rhetoric regarding political, economic, and social issues has escalated, especially in the last 10-20 years. And as the rhetoric has escalated, there has been a corresponding increase in the level of vitriol aimed at individuals and the opposing sides of the issues. Now this shouldn’t be a big problem, because we’re all reasonable, rational humans who can carry on discussions on such issues with some degree of respect for those with opposing views. But lately, it seems as though we just can’t keep our abject hatred in check, where it belongs. So when someone hears something they don’t agree with, they take offense, and vilify the person who said the offending phrase.

The question, of course, is why is this happening now?

The thing is that political change and social movements have always had some degree of activism and some of that activism has gotten violent. Sadly, sometimes, that’s the only way to get a point across. And it’s always extremists who foment that violence. Who are these extremists?

I hear all of you pointing fingers at some specific individuals. Or groups. Or religions. And you’re right. But you’re wrong, too. Think about it: sure, Adolf Hitler fanned the flames of violent support for his views. But Mahatma Gandhi did not, and yet, some of his supporters did turn to violence to help affect the change they were going for.

It’s easy to point at Donald Trump and assign blame there because his campaign rhetoric is so inflammatory. And again, you’re partially correct. Bernie Sanders hasn’t advocated for those violent protests by his supporters and has actually condemned it. But it happens because Trump goes out of his way to insult people on a personal level. And some believe that he encourages it in his supporters. And some people, identifying themselves as Sanders supporters respond forcefully.

But as much as Trump needs to stop his rhetoric and speak respectfully about other people, there’s also an equal responsibility by his supporters and detractors to not escalate things to a level that even comes close to violence. No, I’m not suggesting giving him a free pass, mainly because he is running for President of the United States, but I am suggesting that those who don’t agree with him stop attacking his supporters. Or reducing their responses to his level by calling him some equally vile name.

If we’re going to truly support the idea of freedom of speech and expression, then we need to allow speech like that. We can counter it and discuss it, but do not hurl eggs at another human being because Donald Trump’s way of attacking people is calling them stupid names. After all, in the event that you said something equally stupid on a public stage, you wouldn’t want to find yourself, or someone you loved pelted by eggs. Or worse…

Now yes, I’ll agree that there is a very fine line between inflammatory speech and hate speech. And I can even grant you that in some cases, the hateful words spoken do not necessarily reflect the actual thoughts or beliefs of the person who said them. But we also need to recognize that an individual is not necessarily representative of the group of people he or she is a part of–Adolf Hitler was no more representative of white Americans than the Donner Party was of foodies. The reality is that our constitution protects speech, even if it is stupid and ignorant. As long as it isn’t actually hurtful, we need to stand in support of our system and the constitution and politely disagree with it. And even still, responding to speech that is hateful with violence is wrong. Period. We have justice system that we need to place our trust in.

So let’s all pause and consider our own actions when we hear things we don’t agree with. And leave the eggs at home.