Our Greatest Gift

bn-fi133_speech_gs_20141031151239I have long been a voracious reader, a willing student of things both old and new. I enjoy considering ideas and long for the days of my youth when academic institutions were places of free discussion, fountains of information from multiple avenues of consideration. I was taught by my academic mentors to be open to points of view different from my own and to listen carefully to even the strangest sounding arguments, for within even the ridiculous there is much to be learned. “Perception often defines individual truth” my professors suggested. Our beliefs are built on the foundations of our unique experiences. Our thinking is the sum total of the knowledge that we have learned and the emotions that we have felt. Our outlooks are slowly programmed as we travel through life. Unless we are willing to understand the totality of what has brought an individual to a particular conviction our arguments for or against will fall on deaf ears.

I loved the frankness of unforgettable discussions from my college days. We were encouraged to feel comfortable with a variety of philosophies. Our reading lists often included the works of thinkers who ran the gamut from the far left to the far right. We were told not to blindly accept any argument but rather to consider both the pros and cons of everything that we encountered. Lemmings and sheep were rarely welcome in the classrooms of my youth. We debated each idea on its merits and everyone felt free to hold a forum. The experience was exciting and it molded me into the open minded person that I have always attempted to be.

In the present days we seem to have adopted a different way of approaching conflicting ideas. The debates of old have evolved into wars of words. Certain ideas are not even allowed to be uttered. We are more often than not forced to choose sides even before we hear the totality of the arguments. Those who suggest that we look for compromise in thinking are thought to be non-thinkers, weaklings unwilling to take a stand. We are told that we must be on the right side of history as though there is a clear and concise way of determining which side that is. Our leaders expect us to be automatons who utter our beliefs in unison and without thoughts or questions. I shutter whenever I hear the same lines being repeated regardless of whether they come from the right or the left. Too many of us have become consumers of propaganda, believers without doing research. We follow the boy who cried wolf rather than the one who pointed out that the emperor has no clothes.

I have had to counsel college students who received failing grades on persuasive papers not because their arguments were not rational and grounded in research but because they did not regurgitate their professors’ points of view. I have spoken with young people who fear making their true beliefs known lest they become ostracized. I have watched friendships dissolve over conflicting philosophies. I wonder when our democratic society began to forget the importance of the liberty imbedded in our right to freedom of speech.

I came of age in turbulent times. My male peers were being sent to a war that many of us questioned and others supported. The dream of full integration for our Black brothers and sisters was yet to be fulfilled. My own religion was being transformed from an archaic Latin based liturgy to one that embraced many languages and tore down barriers between the clergy and the congregation. Women were forging new territory in careers once thought to be the exclusive domain of men. There was an excitement in the conversations that we had with one another. Sometimes we found ourselves in the company of friends whose thoughts were diametrically opposed to ours. We gathered around tables and debated sometimes heatedly but always in the spirit of learning. We almost always walked away with our friendships intact despite our differences.

Open debate is frowned upon today. We politely avoid topics that might bring about conflicts. We no longer know how to enjoy a lively discussion without becoming emotional. We spout sound bites rather than reasoned ideas. We close our minds and leave the room if anyone dares to utter political notions. Our feelings are so easily hurt. It is a sad state of affairs.

I find myself missing my mother-in-law more and more. She and I used to sit at her dining room table enjoying tea and cookies while our husbands watched football on Sunday afternoons. She was a convert to conservatism and I was still in my intensely radical progressivism days. We often spoke about the history of the world and the possibilities of its future. She wanted to know what I thought about the economy, international relations, religion and other subjects that would be taboo in most of today’s polite circles. She always listened with respect and then quietly presented her own reflections. We learned from each other without judgement. She was a brilliant woman who might have been intimidating had she simply closed her mind to what I had to say. Instead she taught me the power of truly open debate among friends. It is difficult to find such enjoyable adversaries like her in the super charged environment as we begin 2017.

I suspect that I am not the only one who is weary of the unofficial civil war that is waging across the globe. I’d like to think that our teachers and professors will one day return to a way of teaching our young that allows for great freedom in the exchange of ideas. I would like to see an end to the rampant use of group think in our institutions. We need more reality television like the thought provoking debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley that were so popular in the late sixties. I want our news reporters to state facts, not opinions. I would rather have them ask questions and then simply listen rather than arguing and attempting to push their own opinions on all of us. I will miss Gwen Ifill because she was one of the few journalists who always remained fair minded

I was impressed by something that Van Jones of CNN recently did. Rather than repeating the idea that those who voted for Donald Trump are mostly deplorable woman hating racists he set out to learn what had really prompted them to give their nod to Trump. He travelled to different parts of the country and sat informally across from Trump voters encouraging them to talk while he listened. What he found was that their main motivation was in wanting to be heard. They felt as though they had been forgotten and somehow Trump had made them believe that they were as important as anyone in America. It was not hatred that drove them to the polls but a sense of longing to be noticed.

In the long history of the world people have time and again asked for the freedom to voice their personal concerns and to state their ideas for solving problems. It has only been when humans have been willing to consider alternative points of view that progress has been made. Our Founding Fathers understood that. They set up a republic rather than a pure democracy because they realized that it was a way to hear the voices of even those in remote corners of the nation rather than only those in our most populated areas. They long ago sat through a hot summer risking their very lives so that we might one day be able to speak our minds without fear of being silenced or imprisoned. They heard the different voices from the colonies and compromised to insure that farmers would have as much power as industrialists. They found consensus between great thinkers as different at John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, those who advocated for a strong federal government and those intent on guarding the rights of the individual states. Their genius, with the help of James Madison, eventually gave us freedom of speech in a Bill of Rights that was unmatched in the history of the world.

Let us think twice before we continue to abridge our right to peaceably assemble or petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Let’s honor our differences rather than recoil from them. There is still room in this country for both the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Tea Party, for socialists and libertarians, for democrats and republicans. We might all want to become better acquainted with the members of each group and open our minds to what they are trying to say. Freedom of speech is perhaps our greatest gift as citizens let us all encourage its unfettered exercise.