Last week after Franklin Graham expressed his opinion that the United States must protect itself against violent Islamic jihadists, a Facebook conversation characterized him as a xenophobe. The use of words like xenophobe has become all too common in public conversations. Facebook, Twitter, and comment threads on blogs are littered with such words. It is extremely disturbing to see how discussion of viewpoints has fallen to such a primitive level.
The author of a blog on the Patheos portal expressed a legitimate fear when she said:
I don’t want to offend. I don’t want to have to explain things I don’t have the words to explain. I just want people to like me. I’ve seen people who state opinions similar to mine be slaughtered, not physically, but emotionally, and that scares me.
Conversations about public issues ought not to be experienced as slaughter. If she alone made this point, she might be accused of overreacting. However, more and more voices point to the same problem:
You’re going to be looked at as weird if you say you personally believe marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman, but the real vitriol is saved for those who support legislative efforts to prohibit same-sex couples from accessing the benefits of marriage. Holding a specific set of religious beliefs is different from attempting to force that set of beliefs on everyone else.
The second writer refers to an element of the problem that needs more attention. She said that “holding a specific set of religious beliefs” differs from “attempting to force that set of beliefs on everyone else.” It is the element of force that is changing the face of discussions that should be focused on ideas. Instead of talking about the ideas, too much of the discussion is about forcing others to agree.
The determination to compel everyone to agree leads people not to distinguish between behavior that simply disagrees with a principle and behavior designed to suppress other ideas. Now that people discussing immigration policy are committed to the notion that the only reason for the discussion is to force all people to their own opinions, it appears that they take the behavior of people who disagree with them as having only one purpose: to compel them to change their minds.
I observe this behavior in conversations on Facebook where the distinction between airing a variety of views and driving everyone to consensus appears to be lost. The concept that consensus is required on every point is clearly the rule, and if it cannot be obtained one way, it will be compelled by another means. I see that there is a clear path to this situation, but I do not know how to reverse it.
First came the First Amendment and protection of speech. Everybody has an opinion, and the First Amendment protects the right to speak that opinion. When I was growing up, my father often said, “I utterly disagree with that opinion, but I will fight to the death for your right to hold that opinion.” This attitude was common among his friends, most of whom had fought in World War II. As far as I know, the only way those people pushed their opinions on anyone was to vote for what they thought was right. They voted, and after the votes were counted, some were happier about the outcome than others, but nobody called anyone else a vile name.
That is the way I was brought up to understand the point of public discourse. It was necessary to discuss issues, but it was not necessary to demean those who had different opinions.
Of course, any conversation on a subject on which there is no consensus will necessarily include people who advocate for a variety of opinions. In a nationwide conversation, there will assuredly be advocates for several opinions. People on Facebook seem to see such conversations as being about advocating for “the right view—mine,” and suppressing “the wrong view—any other.” Yet because there are so many people with Facebook accounts, advocates for any number of views can crop up in a conversation. Some advocates are polite and respectful to everyone else, and some are not.
Advocates for a view talk about the reasoning that will lead to the conclusion that this is the right view. Activists, however, actually invite everyone to take action to promote a specific view. This behavior, too, can be conducted respectfully. Activism for a viewpoint is to be respected when it is conducted respectfully. Respectful activism invites people to sign petitions and march through town. There is nothing respectful, however, or respectable, either, in looting and burning businesses. That sort of activism, whether literal or virtual, leaves a charred landscape and is unlikely to motivate those with opposing views to change their minds.
Sadly, many conversations about the issues have become violently activist, so violent, in fact, that it is appropriate to label some as tyrannical. It isn’t only governments that become tyrannies; Facebook conversations can also become tyrannical when the reaction to a single opposing view is name-calling and threats. As the second blogger above pointed out, “real vitriol” enters the picture in many, many conversations. It quickly becomes obvious that most of the participants are much more than simply offended by opposing views. They will not put up with such effrontery.
The very intolerant attitude of such participants makes them believe that a Christian is “attempting to force [his] beliefs” on others when he simply declines to participate in whatever the group is doing. They believe that every word and deed of theirs must be devoted to breaking down resistance to the justness of their cause, and they do not mind verbally savaging someone in pursuit of that objective. Hence, they project their own viciousness on those who differ with them and accuse those objectors with wanting to do savagery in return.
There needs to be some way to educate participants in the art of arguing from different viewpoints without doing verbal or physical harm to the other participants.
A good example occurred during the Facebook discussion of Franklin Graham’s views. The accusation that he was a xenophobe produced many outbursts of agreement. Opposing views, and even the comment that his proposal of immigration control was a legitimate suggestion, evoked scorn against the speakers. Those who spoke respectfully of Franklin Graham were characterized as racist, prideful, and unchristian. There was no rebuttal of Franklin Graham’s proposal. The rebuttal was a personal attack on Franklin Graham and anyone who did not agree to join the attack. Yes. It was not necessary to agree with Franklin Graham in order to incur a vitriolic assault. Just refuse to agree to call the man a xenophobe, and the target was painted on your forehead, too.
One person introduced evidence to support Graham’s concerns, and requested evidence that supported the position that Graham’s concerns were unreasonable. The request was itself considered unreasonable, because the people who expressed the opinion that Graham was right about the danger of Islamic terrorism were considered to be themselves belligerently unwilling to be persuaded that Franklin Graham was a xenophobe. In other words, the only point of the conversation was to build consensus that Franklin Graham is a xenophobe. Participants considered conversation a waste of time if it did not lead to consensus on that point. The very real issue of whether Islamic terrorism is a threat to the USA could not be discussed.
This sort of thing is quite common now. I read this morning that the Twitter community is attempting to create a negative buzz about Ryan Anderson’s book on marriage, which has not even been released yet. The buzzers will attempt to post one-star reviews of a book they have not purchased or read. They aren’t trying to address Anderson’s arguments against the redefinition of marriage; they are trying to keep his book from selling, which is one way of diminishing him without refuting his arguments.
Amon the 2016 presidential hopefuls, a similar campaign is under way. This one attempts to demean Donald Trump by treating him as a ridiculous clown rather than address the issues he raises. In 2012, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachman received the same treatment.
After the latest revelations about Planned Parenthood and the medical researchers who are willing to pay for the body parts of aborted babies, the discussion should not be a smear of the person who recorded a Planned Parenthood employee revealing how it all works; the discussion should be about what sort of country permits human body parts to be bought and sold. When issues such as immigration, terrorism, abortion, marriage and unconstitutional actions by the federal government are threatening the liberty of 350 million people, why are the voters spending their time assaulting the people who say that we need to deal with these issues?
What would happen if US voters actually discussed the questions instead of attacking the people who raise them?