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The Deafening of America

I’m putting together a collection of essays from Lost Coast Review, written over the last five years. I decided the collection needed an introductory essay, explaining my general point of view. That viewpoint hasn’t changed too much from 2011 to 2016, but, for me,  the concern expressed in many of the essays has intensified.  So here it is.

There’s a kind of thinking that has become popular, and it is that certain viewpoints are morally superior to others and that those who don’t hold those viewpoints or who hold other views, represent a danger to our country.  The danger that they represent must be labeled and prevented from having a platform to spread its influence. The viewpoints that are acceptable to some are a belief in man-made climate change, acceptance of homosexuality and transgenderism as normal, tolerance for undocumented immigrants remaining in this country, lack of suspicion of Muslims, agreement with a woman’s right to have an abortion (perhaps at public expense). Those who don’t agree that man-made climate change is real are called climate-change deniers, those who don’t accept homosexuality or transgenderism as normal are homophobic, those who want to return undocumented immigrants to their countries of origin are xenophobic and perhaps racist, those who are suspicious of those who practice the religion of Islam are Islamophobic, those who don’t believe that abortion should be allowed are anti-feminist. Not only are such labels thought to be appropriate for people with such views, in virtually all cases, these viewpoints are thought to be characteristic of uneducated, uninformed, religiously primitive people who, in a fit of being-led-by-the-nose mob rule, elected a racist, sexist, authoritarian, probably neo-Nazi man to the presidency. Failure to see and acknowledge that this is the case is thought to be tantamount to collaboration with the enemy.

Of course, on the opposite side of the political spectrum, some of those who hold different views in fact have proposed that environmental regulations that could save the planet from catastrophic climate change should be repealed. They have favored repeal of laws allowing same-sex marriage and enactment of laws that would allow businesses to not serve gay, lesbian or transgender customers. They have supported sending all undocumented immigrants back to their countries of origin. They have supported stopping Muslims from entering the country, maintaining surveillance of their places of worship and making them register as members of the Islamic religion. They have favored repealing national laws allowing women to choose to have an abortion. And the newly elected president of the country has favored some version of each of these positions at one time or another. And some people who are openly racist and anti-Semitic have supported not only these positions, but applauded the election of the new president.

America is a country in which its citizens hold a variety of viewpoints, many of them opposite to those held by their neighbors. When there is a disagreement about the values that underlie a particular point of view, it is natural to assume that one’s own values are morally superior to those of the people who disagree with you. Disagreements about issues of morality are defended with particular ferocity, as it is seen as a moral failing to give up one’s point of view. This may be true in some instances, but it also can lead to a total failure to be able to hold a meaningful discussion of issues.

Disagreements about cultural and political issues do not always imply a disagreement about underlying values or morality. Both liberals and conservatives can agree that in a successful economy everyone does well, poverty is kept to a minimum and everyone has an equal chance to improve his or her economic status. That is an agreement on morals and values. But they may disagree on how to achieve this end. Conservatives may want to de-regulate businesses and lower corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy as a plan to energize the economy and raise the quality of life and economic prosperity of everyone. Liberals may want to tax wealth and corporations and use the tax money to support a social safety net for those who are struggling in the economy  or are vulnerable because of a variety of factors such as age, disability, or discrimination.

Sometimes disagreements in fact do signal opposite viewpoints on underlying dimensions of value. We should not be too quick to assume so, however. Those who believe that homosexuality is a natural sexual preference for some people and one that deserves no adverse discrimination in social behaviors or in legal matters have a different viewpoint from those who believe that homosexuality is a choice and is a sin against God and that allowing it places more of our population in danger of succumbing to such behavioral tendencies. However, these are differences in how people understand the nature of and moral value of homosexuality. People who have either point of view may still agree on the value of the rights of the person who is homosexual to be allowed to do everything a heterosexual person does, including marry, and to not have to endure discrimination or harassment. Pope Francis for instance, appears to have such a view. Similarly, Catholic politicians such as Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, can believe that abortion is a sin, but not feel that he or others with his view have a right to impose their opinion upon a woman who is pregnant, thereby valuing a “woman’s right to choose” just as much as someone who does not view abortion as a sin.

Opinions and the values that are related to them are complex and much more varied than our stereotypes would imply. The University of California wrestled with the relationship between anti-Israel sentiments and anti-Semitic sentiments in trying to lay down some university rules on what kind of points of view were to be allowed to be expressed on campuses. Clearly some students who oppose Israel’s right to be a state also express hatred and suspicion of Jews. Others only oppose the actions of Israel toward Palestinians and otherwise have no antipathy toward Jews. To make a judgment regarding anti-Semitism on the basis of attitudes toward Israel can be a mistake.

Many people who value everyone regardless of his or her religion or absence of religion, are fearful of Muslim’s, particularly Muslim immigrants to the U.S. They can lay out reasons for their fear and even admit that they are succumbing to stereotyping, yet they feel that the danger of a Muslim terror attack is real. Among these people, some support special legal measures being taken with regard to Muslims in order to protect our society. Others among them, despite their personal fears, do not support such measures because they believe such measures will undermine our democratic value of freedom of religious expression. Still other people have no greater fear of Muslims as potential terrorists than of anyone else and therefore favor no special measures toward Muslims, but would if they thought they were warranted. To assume one knows what someone believes because of the position he or she supports can be a mistake.

If people differ not just in values and cultural/political opinions, but also in the relationship between their values and their opinions, then how are we going to understand how they arrive at their opinions without having a discussion with them? Labeling them because of their opinions and refusing to listen to them is not going to allow us to understand them and is quite likely to leave us with a mistaken impression of what they believe. Even worse, preventing them from expressing their opinion precludes us from ever learning what they believe. There is even the possibility (denied by many of my friends and colleagues) that we may have something to learn from those with whom we disagree and we could even change our own opinion after listening to them.

The current social climate within our country does not allow for discussion of opposing viewpoints. Instead, those who hold opposite points of view are labeled and demonized and every attempt is made to prevent them from expressing their views. Although I count myself among those on the liberal progressive left, I have to say that this tendency to demonize and attempt to prevent others from speaking occurs more often from people on the political left than on the right. This, despite fear of loss of freedom of speech being a paramount fear among those on the left. As these commentaries have pointed out, the majority of “disinvitations” of speakers to American college campuses  or attempts to “shut down” such speakers once they have arrived, have been instigated by students on the left. Very unpopular groups, such as the White supremacist Traditional Workers Party led by Mathew Heimbach have been physically attacked, when they tried to rally, by those who claimed to be preventing “Nazi violence,” athough it was the protesters, not the neo-Nazis that initiated the violence. No one on the left complained of this violation of the group’s right to free speech.

The point of all the commentaries published in Lost Coast Review has been to make people aware that those they disagree with may deserve to be understood. People have different values and opinions. Some values may not be compatible with democratic values, but before making such an assumption about the values that underlie a particular person’s opinion, it is best to listen to what he or she says. At the present time we live in a nation that appears to value bombast and intolerance over understanding. Everyone assumes he or she is right and is self-righteous about it. Those who disagree are labeled as having something wrong with them and to allow them to express their opinions is seen as risking our democracy. It seems to me that such an attitude misunderstands democracy and fails to value the people who make up our democracy and who harbor very different opinions on a lot of different issues.

Reader Comments (1)

I agree. I think part of the problem is that people with a particular point of view can find media that support that view and avoid even hearing about an alternative.

December 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWarren Bull

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