Country in danger if people fearful of speaking out

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

French philosopher Voltaire often is attributed with having said: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Some say the quotation is actually a paraphrase of Voltaire's words: "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too."

At least one author suggests the probable source for the quotation is from a 1770 letter in which Voltaire wrote: "... I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write."

Whatever the case, the essence of the meaning of all those sentences has been cemented into American life and thought in the form of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "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."

Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend among some people how widespread we cannot determine to try and limit the free speech of others if it doesn't agree with their ideas of right thinking.

Such a trend, however, flies in the face of a nation built on the notion of independence and independent thinking. It erodes all the freedoms that have provided the foundation of this country for more than two centuries. It sends the nation down that perilous, proverbial slippery slope.

If the thoughts and speech and writings of some are considered wrong because they are out of sync with the majority or those in power or just those in the neighborhood, what issue might send those who are in the right today into the wrong tomorrow? How can anyone be sure that they also won't find themselves in disfavor because of an opinion they hold dear?

This nation has a legacy of vigorous debate. It's a legacy that should be treasured and nurtured. Far from being un-American or unpatriotic, questions raised about the actions of our government actually serve to make the government stronger, not weaker. Iron sharpens iron. Questions, debates and disagreements serve to hone our reasoning and may check and change our behavior all for the better.

We need only to look as far as our homes, businesses and communities to know they are better places because family members, co-workers and neighbors hold and express different viewpoints and have different ways of doing things. The places where we live and work would be dull and lifeless indeed, and we all might as well be robots, if we are just expected to say "yes" to those making the decisions.

Disagreement and dissension should not be feared. What should be feared is any attempt to stifle the expression of those who think differently than we do. It is troublesome that in recent weeks we have heard from so many in our community who have hesitated to voice their opinion out of fear of how others may react.

What kind of country or community have we become if we no longer feel safe expressing a viewpoint that might be different from one our neighbor holds?

It is true that freedom carries with it responsibility. Part of the responsibility of all who live in a free society is to encourage thoughtful discourse on all kinds of issues. Instead of shutting out or shouting down those who disagree with us, it would benefit everyone, including our government, if individuals could develop the habit of respectful listening. Maybe it won't change our minds, but maybe we'll learn something. Best of all, maybe such respectful listening will foster an environment where different ideas will thrive, where people will know they can express their thoughts without any fear of retribution, where people can question the actions of those in authority without being labeled traitors.

Otherwise, we are chipping away at the very foundation of the country. And, in the words of the Pogo cartoon: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

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