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Friday, June 16, 2017

We Are at the Crossroads between Violence and Tolerance

Is speech designed to silence others still technically ‘free’?

“Et tu Brute?” Most of us, even those who are unfamiliar with Shakespeare have heard this famous phrase. Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, has contributed numerous quotable lines to the modern lexicon so it is no wonder that this play was chosen by The Public Theater for this year’s lineup of Shakespeare in the Park.

However, a recent performance of the play has drawn harsh criticism for one simple reason. In a modern retelling of the play, the theater group chose to create a not-so-subtle reference to President Donald Trump as the protagonist.

We have reached a point in this country where violence has replaced metered civil discourse.

It is not surprising that this type of imagery would draw the ire of theater fans and corporate sponsors. Although the account of Caesar’s demise is well documented, swapping in the image of a sitting President into a play recounting political treachery and assassination borders closely on a treasonous display. If this play took place in Caesar’s day, I’m not so sure that any of the members of the theater group would still be among the other free members of Rome.

While the media is mixed on its response, the New York Times is defending the play vigorously, this display brings up an important point and one which is not being carefully discussed at length in the media or elsewhere. We have reached a point in this country and around the world where violence has replaced metered civil discourse.

We are no longer societies of educated and interested citizens willing to listen to someone else’s viewpoint without retaliating against them in violence and open displays of hatred.

Free Speech, Defamation, and Kathy Griffin

Now disgraced public figure, Milo Yiannopoulos was the recipient of such violence and suppression when he traveled to California’s Berkeley College last year. Students who took issue with Yiannopoulos’ views sought to silence him by attacking the building he was supposed to speak at along with burning objects and hurling debris.

This is only one in a string of incidents that have resembled war zones rather than places where public discourse is enshrined.

This is a frightening turn of events, which will most likely have grave political and social ramifications.

Our country was founded on the principles of free speech and the protections thereof. When does free speech become dangerous to society? Is all speech, especially speech designed to silence others, technically ‘free’?

Libel and defamation lawsuits have fallen out of popularity with the rise of tabloids and late night T.V. coupled with a continued acceptance for more inflammatory speech by the masses. It seems today you can effectively say anything about anyone, public or private, on any platform as long as you don’t intend to act on anything you say or risk anyone taking your comments too seriously.

Lines do still seem to exist as Kathy Griffin found a few weeks ago when she posted a gruesome photo of the President decapitated in her hand. It is doubtful however that 100 years or even 50 years ago if these types of displays would have been met with almost no response from the Secret Service.

A political climate exists today that is verging dangerously toward force as a means of silencing opponents rather than a culture of engagement. In an effort to enshrine toleration, a pluralistic culture has decided that the only views that should be tolerated are its own at any given time.

This mentality is prevalent on both the left and the right in both the media and among voters. Americans are increasingly seeing government as the means to achieve their ends and are more than ever willing to employ the use of force to do so.

Reverse Censorship

We would do well to remember that there is a reverse type of censorship.

This is a frightening turn of events and one which will most likely have grave political and social ramifications. President Gerald Ford said, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Would anyone consider what Kathy Griffin did with her photo or what The Public Theater group decided to promote as part of their series anything but at the very least, disagreeable? We would do well to remember that there is a reverse type of censorship. By silencing others through civil unrest or through public displays of murder you are exercising their ability to promote censorship of these individuals and their ideals forever.

Aristotle once said, “Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms.” We may be nearing his third stage of despotism.

When people produce public displays of ‘staged’ murder of any American citizen, we are all at risk. Anyone associating with that person has been given a message as to how they and their views are seen. 63 million people voted for Donald Trump, do Kathy Griffin and The Public Theater company want to see them dead as well?

We can either accept that violence will rule how we interact or we can decide to reign in intolerance in the name of tolerance.

This is the important question we should be asking. Leaders represent the views of the people who vote for them. We have a framework in this country for the peaceful transition of power and we have enshrined such civil rights as the right to peaceful protest and removal from office by vote. The founders knew there would be people of varying political sentiment living in America. Their design was not for open acts of violence to represent how opposing political viewpoints are viewed.

American and global civil discourse is at a crossroads. We can either accept that violence will rule how we interact with others both behind the protection of our computer screens or openly in the public square or we can decide to reign in intolerance in the name of tolerance.

Once these types of acts become mainstream it is not long before societies devolve into anarchy. Liberty minded individuals know the power of civil public discourse and education. That is how we spread the ideals of freedom. We must start championing these values. We need to end the violence and hatred before a despot decides to end it for us.

Reprinted from Medium.