“Free Speech”: Who’s Listening?

By Jim Selman | Bio

One of the paradoxes of a free and democratic society is that it only takes a few committed and fanatical people to screw up the system for every one. Political entrepreneurs can appeal to people’s fears and concerns, get power by gathering together a group with common worries and beliefs, and then isolate ‘their’ followers from the larger population. The media can entrench this kind of political or social fragmentation. When people become addicted to their ‘own’ particular media channels—ones that support the messages of ‘their’ leaders or ‘their’ side—we end up with no one listening to anyone else’s point of view.

While this can and does exist everywhere to some degree, it is particularly evident in the Middle East. For example, in Lebanon people listen only to the media that more or less parrots the point of view of their particular constituency. Every political and religious faction has their ‘own’ television channel, their own newspapers, their own radio stations. The media organizations depend upon reinforcing the points of view and maintaining the divisions to keep their audience share. Members of the various audience groups never change the channel or scan the radio dial—and all the messages they receive reinforce their fear and hatred of the other groups. Moreover, no one really needs to be responsible for their own personal point of view since they’ve never really listened to other views. Add to this a healthy dose of general fear and you have an ideologically fragmented society that lacks the capacity to become integrated or ‘whole’.

This kind of vicious cycle is becoming all too apparent in our own nation. The conservatives listen to FOX NEWS, the liberals listen to CNBC, and pundits from both camps shout at each other on CNN. Nowhere are there thoughtful and civil discussions intended to genuinely understand the concerns of each side of a debate. If we listen to the rhetoric and witness ‘our’ media’s treatment of the opposing viewpoints and conversations, it almost seems as if the notion of civil discourse has become a naïve ideal.
The recent health care debate is a case in point. For example, I shared with someone close to me that I had read the USA was ranked 37th in terms of the quality of our health care by the World Health Organization. She barked back and accused me of listening to left wing ‘propaganda’, a point of view she got from listening to right wing messages. Even though the legislation that passed was fairly close to past Republican proposals and similar to the Republican plan in Massachusetts, few acknowledged this. Instead, they railed on and on about ‘socialized’ medicine. It’s no different when we look at right wing statements: any conservative call for fiscal restraint or mention that entitlement programs are bankrupting us is shouted down by the left as being insensitive to human needs and lacking common decency.

When we cannot even agree on the facts, when we cannot accept any of our media as being objective, we have lost the possibility of resolving our differences. At some point, even negotiation and compromise become impossible. Neither party will accept or honor the decisions or policies of the other. All parties immediately proceed to undermine the processes designed to accommodate our differences.

I’d like to think we aren’t yet as entrenched as the various factions in the Middle East. I’d like to think ‘our radicals’ aren’t as bad as the Taliban or other groups that attempt to dominate through fear and propaganda. I’d like to think we survived McCarthyism and the John Birchers and the KKK, and that—somehow—times are different.

But technology is pressing us forward at ever increasing speeds. Are we losing the time for thoughtful reflection and the space to articulate and consider our arguments on a point-by-point basis? Do we need to ‘buy’ the whole package of a political agenda (either conservative or liberal) in order to belong and be acceptable to our fellow citizens? Is it still possible to ‘agree to disagree’ and trust the process to honor and protect our differences?

America and Constitutional Democracy is still a relatively young experiment in the history of human society. It is at risk today because it depends upon the individual responsibility of its citizens combined with civil discourse. It depends upon our really listening to each other and our willingness to trust the majority. When we no longer have a media that both sides can trust, when we stop listening to each other, when resentment and fear are bigger than our common cause, we are lost.

Let us each individually stop giving our power to the pundits. Let us begin to think for ourselves. We must start listening to each other, to use our God-given ability to reason and respect each other’s point of view—even when we don’t agree.


© 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.