Valuing Civil Dissent

Dr. Mark Hamilton, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Ashland University

In November 2008 I was attending a conference in downtown San Diego.  As I exited a Saturday session and emerged out of the hotel onto the street for a breath of warm fresh air, I was struck by a distant roar.  It was low and constant but seemed to be gradually increasing.  I walked in the direction of the reverberating echo  and in about two blocks came to a brigade of humans about six across marching orderly and chanting in rhythm.   As I carefully read the signs and listened to their repetitious outcries, I realized it was an organized march on behalf of gay marriage protesting California’s passage of the Marriage Amendment.

I was shocked by the massive turnout of people, but I was equally surprised at the relative control and respect demonstrated by the crowd.  My only previous experience with a gay parade had been over a decade ago in Boston when my wife and I, along with our two daughters, drove into Boston for a walk along the famous historic Freedom Trail and while on our casual walk encountered a shocking gay parade.  We were forced to step into several stores to shield our eyes and the eyes and ears of our young children from the profanities being shouted and the visual obscenities.   The San Diego march was quite different.  The signs made their points, the crowd was loud but orderly, and they were respectful to the surrounding citizenry.  They allowed me to politely cross through their midst to meet my ride.  I later found out that there were dissents like that all across America that day but that the San Diego one was the largest, estimated at between 20-25 thousand people.   And though I disagreed with the content of their political statements, it was important to recognize they were appropriately exercising their political rights and freedoms and doing so legally and without infringing upon the rights of others.

It has been rightly stated innumerable times that America is a nation built on dissent.  The founding fathers began the rebellion against England as a form of dissent and had the insight to protect the rights of others to dissent through the First Amendment.  America’s great strength has been its ability to allow disagreement and dialogue.  I am a conservative yet I often dissented with the Bush administration on issues like spending, the increasing size of government, the War in Iraq, the use of what I would consider questionable means of extracting information, the lack of foresight in developing renewable sources of energy or the inability to make a decision on the status of the detainees in Guantanamo prison by placing them on military trial.

One of the great failures of the Bush presidency was its breakdown to dialogue with friendly dissenters, with conservatives.   I have been frequently disturbed by so-called conservatives who blindly followed his policies thinking that Republicans are naturally conservative, are always right, or that because Bush confessed Christ he was making “Christian decisions.”   Unfortunately many conservatives mindlessly think that a dislike of war is a lack of patriotism or that the more one refuses to support the use of force the more un-American a person becomes.  We fail to look at the complexities that are involved in defining a truly “just war.”   America is becoming a country of mindless conservatives and mindless liberals where dissent is seen as unpatriotic or as immoral where we must fight back or silence the dissenters.  Just look at the recent events at the University of North Carolina where students violently disrupted and shouted down Tim Tancredo.  One UNC student defended the action saying, “He was not able to practice hate speech.”  Have we become so afraid of words?

We can no longer just blindly trust our government’s interpretation or our media’s reporting on these events.  They all seem to want disagreement shut down.  I want to live in America because it is a place of dissent and discussion.  I feel threatened that we contrarians are being forced to be silent by both the liberals and the conservatives.  People no longer understand what free speech is; it is a necessary freedom with great responsibility.  We may disagree with the content of what fools may say but we cannot take away their right to speak.  I’ve known the freedom to peacefully demonstrate against nuclear build-ups, against abortion, against hazardous waste incinerators, or against child pornography in mainstream bookstores and the freedom to discuss openly great issues of controversy in the college classroom.  Do we dare annihilate this freedom?

Many liberals used to be strong supporters of free speech.  Sadly this has eroded from their midst.  Even the supposed “Tolerant Mr. Obama” has prided himself on this, but if this is so why does he mock those who attended the Tea Party rallies?  Was his ridicule of the Tea Baggers a form of “Hate Speech?”  Why has the media failed to fairly cover these Tea Party events the way it covered similar Gay Rights demonstrations?  My eyes were opened to this liberal failure several years ago when they wanted protestors outside abortion mills prosecuted for racketeering (RICO act).   I had always thought that liberals knew what free speech was.  That may have been true in the past but it is no more.  I am greatly disappointed in my American friends who are liberal.    Boy, was I fooled by thinking all these years that one of the real positive things that liberals stood for was the First Amendment.  I can no longer be fooled.   Ideology has replaced American ideals.    Certainly it is politics and not ideology or justice behind the desire for “Hate Speech” legislation and the desire to silence talk radio. I’m an American and dissent is at the fabric of my being.  Do not take this away from me and do not shut me down.   If you do so you shut down the last vestiges of America.