Nearly every time I turn on a television, read editorials, or browse the internet for interesting blogs, I am immediately confronted with several articles and reports that I not only believe to be false, but whose allegations are sufficiently far off the mark to be odious, offensive, and potentially destructive to my way of life if enthusiastically practiced. Their content, however, as well as their sources and purpose, are totally irrelevant. I mention them to illustrate that somebody (in fact MANY) have opinions profoundly different from mine.
As my anger rises at the absurdity of various claims or the sincerity with which propaganda is peddled, I will turn off the TV and throw the remote, discard the magazine, close the computer, or even storm about the house in a juvenile tirade about how stupid people are, how ignorant of facts they choose to be, and how their very existence jeopardizes my sanity. In truth, my life would be easier if they would shut up.
The same applies to strangers I have met who have audaciously and rabidly opposed my viewpoints, who resort to insults, name-calling, and what I consider to be even more preposterous claims in an attempt to discredit my convictions. It is a wonder I even venture into public at all. It often ends in my frustration, weariness, and occasional insult at the brazen remarks of others. My social life would certainly be simpler if I didn’t have to listen to these people, and if talking hairdos, self-professed experts, and propagandists would go away indefinitely. As before, the subjects of these conversations are completely irrelevant.
No doubt, however, many feel the same about me, or what I write, or the moral philosophies I pontificate as essential to robust and upright living, a successful country, national defense, international diplomacy, and so forth. Frankly, I’m fairly certain I irritate them no end. It’s somewhat humorous, really, to consider how divided the public remains on key issues, politics, and social virtues. But this is America…
What I have been doing, just as much as any whose viewpoints I oppose, is simply exercising my 1st Amendment rights under the US Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Inasmuch as my rights are thereby defended to speak, worship, and believe as I so choose, so also are the rights of my opponents. Furthermore, any attempt on my part, or the part of anybody else to squelch the publication of such radically differing ideologies is a direct violation of the principles of our national, self-governing creed. As much as people disagree with me, or I with them, let us all speak our minds. We’ve purchased this inalienable right at high cost.
I was recently asked to participate in a documentary on the subject of growing up a Muslim in the United States. Among other questions posed by the Muslim interviewer, it was asked what I thought of Muslims in America. “Do they have a place in the US?” The answer, obviously, is an emphatic YES! Why not? Because I disagree with them? Because a few radicals adamantly oppose the United States and have armed themselves with the intent of killing all those not like them? It is unfair to target Islam as the sole progenitor of violent, anti-American sentiment. Just as violent and abhorrently wrong are the actions of a single veteran (Timothy McVeigh) to take innocent lives in Oklahoma City, or a man who feels compelled to murder abortionists because he is opposed to their actions, or a man (Theodore Kaczynski) who mails bombs to those supposedly encroaching on human freedoms through large-scale organization, or an animal rights activist (Daniel San Diego) that bombs biotechnology businesses because he opposes advancement in science. The lists are exhaustive, and represent a diverse (and deviant) set of ideologies gone awry. Every group, unfortunately, has a few of them. Muslims are by no means the only ones.
What makes this nation great is the fact we are free to disagree openly with others, free to worship differently, and even free to speak in direct opposition to the behavior of our government. We are free to do this without fear – from either our neighbors, our law enforcement, or our government. Few in the world have such opportunity. Political dissidents (those who dare speak their minds) in China and North Korea are routinely imprisoned and even tortured and executed. The wife of an opposition leader in Zimbabwe had her hands chopped off with machetes and was burned alive. A crowd of peaceful female protestors in Afghanistan was stoned by the opposition for daring to disagree with a marital rape law. Indeed, there are few places in the world besides America where we may openly disagree without fear.
And I fiercely defend that right. Although many veterans come home and hear hurtful and destructive remarks from the public or even families, it is the right of those persons to speak as they so desire (though it at times does betray their ignorance and misplaced anger). Similarly, as much as I wish to pull my hair out with a daily inundation of incorrect material online, in print, and in the news, I stand by their right to say as they wish. What makes this nation so great is that there are many men and women who have volunteered for difficult, dangerous and potentially deadly service to defend the right of those back home to adamantly disagree with them. They defended their own opposition, to put it bluntly.
If either the right, the left, or any other group were to make any effort to shut down the opposition, they would be directly infringing upon the rights we all enjoy as permitted and even celebrated in the Constitution. Actions to silence an opposition are unconstitutional, un-American, and truly destructive to the fabric of our country. If such a thing happens, we are in peril of national disintegration. What, then, are we to do about opposition? We present a more appealing alternative.
The fundamentals of good argument are for both sides to state their convictions, and then take turns briefly rebutting the other’s argument and provide additional reinforcement for their own. There is no place for silencing one’s opponents. Nor does simply negating the opposition function to advance the claims of the other. They must present a better argument, not just weaken their opponents.’ In fact, an attempt to silence an opponent’s argument simply betrays the weakness of their own.
For all its aggravations and difficulties, for all the needless debate and the creation of an argumentative culture, this is the better way, the RIGHT way, and the American way. For far more dear than having everybody agree with each other is the critical right to disagree without fear of harm. Billions worldwide truly ache for this luxury, yet we so quickly forget its significance to the foundational to this country.
So to the opposition: keep talking, keep arguing, and keep disagreeing. So will I, and may the better argument win. Just as you are in no danger for disagreeing, neither am I in any danger. We will settle our differences as civilized adults, as neighbors, and as Americans. For all you may yell, I, too, will yell. For all the ad campaigns you undertake, there will be others to disagree and present an alternative. When our government does something we disagree with, we will unite temporarily and yell at them together. And at the end of the day, we will still open doors for each other, still greet each other as neighbors and friends, and still cherish the one beautiful document that enables us bicker with each other. It would behoove us to do so courteously, for we are ultimately united in appreciating the same freedoms.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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