Before the 2016 election cycle, I enjoyed discussing politics. I remember animated discussions about policy, elections and candidates with friends and colleagues. It wasn’t much different than debating the Michigan-Ohio State football game in its level of seriousness.
We used to respect each other and could actually discuss topical issues in a civil manner, even if we disagreed.
I’m saddened, and somewhat frightened by the fact that political discourse is becoming stifled now in civil society. I’m probably not alone in excessive self-censorship as political opinions have become lightning rods which can destroy relationships and create enemies.
Recently, I’ve become reluctant to bring up anything remotely political at meetings and social gatherings, and especially on social media; it’s become too divisive and emotional. My public words today are guarded, even around those who likely share my opinions.
I don’t think this is a good thing.
While many do express their opinions in the open, it’s becoming a smaller minority. Those who hold strong opinions are typically labeled by both sides. Even people with reasonable opinions on most any political topics today seem to get lambasted from either side of the political spectrum. We’re becoming a society reluctant to speak out. In some ways, a society of wimps.
Reasonable, civil, intelligent people today simply shut up in social settings when it comes to politics. Nobody wants to create a conflict today and certainly doesn’t want to destroy relationships. I can’t imagine the tension people experience daily in business settings where everyone has to guard their opinions. Political opinions can be career killers in many institutions.
There are many factors which have created this problem. The most obvious is the internet, where any and all opinions are holy writ, and incite people without much effort. What began as a great communication device with potential and promise for bringing the world together, has divided and separated people.
Our president hasn’t done much to quell this problem with his social media omnipresence and inciting rhetoric. Our mainstream media has sunk to an all-time low in trust and credibility; we simply don’t know who to believe anymore.
On college campuses today there is a movement to quell free speech. It’s part of the doctrine of political correctness. College used to be a place of openness and objectivity. Today, if someone with a contrasting opinion shows up, they are shouted down and denied their free speech rights. Many colleges have become extremely selective in who can and cannot speak.
The polarization of politics has affected us socially which ought to scare the hell out of all of us. If we have become uncomfortable discussing politics and policy, just what will politicians get away with because we don’t seem to care?
Has political correctness numbed and lulled us into a state where we might slip into totalitarianism? It’s happened far too frequently in our world’s history. Many times it began with silence, which became acceptance, then domination. It’s something we must seriously consider if we remain silent.
Our nation was founded on rebellion. In 1776 we cast off tyranny in a grand manner. I find it cathartic and humorous that a line in the musical “1776” says it best. As members of Congress debated and nit-picked the wording in the Declaration of Independence, a frustrated John Adams firmly stood up and said “This is a revolution, dammit! We have to offend someone!”
It’s not that we have lost any of our First Amendment rights, it’s the fact that we no longer care to discuss or exercise them for fear of retribution, rejection and social rejection. This is a sad moment when we become afraid to speak about matters important to our nation.
Benjamin Franklin said it well: “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom — and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”
Let’s hope we don’t lull ourselves into complacency and domination because we might offend someone if we express our opinions.
About the author: T. R. Shaw Jr. is CEO of Shaw Communication in Battle Creek.