April 6
by Ken Reynolds

What Happens to Free Speech If No One Listens

If we do not teach our children to disagree reasonably the next logical step is unreasonable disagreement. The step after that is violent disagreement.

I believe in our party system. We need a legitimate organized way to express opposing opinions and parties provide it. We are too large and too diverse in our beliefs to do it all completely independent of some organization. We do not have to belong to one of the parties to appreciate their value, or most importantly to participate in the process. That is a blessing of our democratic form of government. Although we are democratic in form, we live in a republic and elect representatives to speak for all of us.

We elect senators and congressmen to represent all the people of their state or district in a legislative process whose purpose is stated in the Constitution of the United States: establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. We must not let our representatives forget they are elected to represent all their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them.

We are not all alike. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the time has come to say it and to consider what our differences mean. Our physical differences are readily apparent. Our emotional differences are less so. The differences in our thoughts and beliefs only become known when we choose to reveal them.

Our appearance changes as we age — the obvious once again. We can gain or lose weight, wear different clothes, grow a beard or change hairstyles but absent illness or trauma we look in the mirror at the same person we faced six months ago. Changing our emotional response is too complex to undertake without professional help. We can change what we believe, but are not likely to do so unless we make a conscious decision to consider different information and opinions. Why would anyone want to do that?

We should all want to because our nation’s survival depends upon it. The most precious right and freedom Americans possess is the right to express our ideas and thoughts openly and without fear of government retribution. Every right and every freedom we hold dear depends upon the first amendment to our Constitution. The right to hold our own convictions, to speak and to print what we think gives us a way to protect all the other provisions of the Constitution.

But, of what value is the right to express a thought if no one is willing to listen?

The Bill of Rights came into existence as amendments to the Constitution. After months of arguments and compromises the delegates to the Convention reached agreement on a form of government. In the ensuing national dialogue the lack of certain guarantees to individual persons became a major obstacle to ratification. In short, someone was concerned and voiced those concerns. Someone else listened and changed his mind. If all the delegates had maintained their positions — read party lines — there would have been no Bill of Rights, no Constitution and no United States of America.

The most notable, but not the only, example was James Madison’s initial opposition to enumerating specific individual rights. He believed the Constitution as written protected those rights. Thomas Jefferson, who was not a member of the convention, was among those who believed enumerating those rights was necessary. His reasoning convinced Madison to reverse positions and advocate for passage of the amendments.

Madison was an eloquent and influential supporter of representative government with two legislative branches. He believed broadening the electorate would provide extended protection against tyranny, including the tyranny of the majority. The 1790 U. S. Census counted fewer than four million people. Madison assumed the public and its elected representatives would air their differences in reasoned debates.

We now have more than 300 million people — and almost that many opinions. Our personal agendas, our national and racial origins, religious beliefs and uncounted other differences have multiplied along with our numbers. The possibility of a majority agreement on any issue is becoming increasingly unlikely. We have only to look at the legislative impasses — and increasing rancor — in our congress, and particularly the New York and California governments to see where unwillingness to consider the sincerity and validity of other opinions has led to turmoil in the budgeting and law making processes. They are putting politics first.

During the President’s September 9 address to Congress representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted out “You Lie.” His action was a breach of decorum, but not a violation of any law. He has the right to tell the President, or anyone else, he is lying. Joe Wilson’s constituents will decide the political consequences of his behavior, but you and I must decide if we want our disagreements aired in such a manner. Do we want our congressmen to behave like children on a school playground?

Do we want our children and grandchildren to grow up believing that shouting and not listening is an effective way to preserve their right to shout and not listen? Some of us are willing to prevent our children from hearing the President address students while they are at school. Parents have a right to make that decision, but parents who want to protect that right should consider the implications of not letting their children hear an opinion they do not agree with.

If we, as individuals, want to insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity a safer approach would be to discuss with the children what was said and explain why we disagree. If we do not teach our children to reasonably disagree the next logical step is unreasonable disagreement. The step after that is violent disagreement.

We should all listen when our president speaks. The President of the United States is the only national official all citizens have the opportunity to vote for. If we disagree with what he says it is important to voice those disagreements, but it is more important to understand and to articulate the basis for our disagreement — and to listen with understanding to what those who oppose us are saying. How else can our government continue to exist? How else can we guarantee our right to be outspoken in our disagreement?        published in Smoke Signals October 2009

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