America is the world’s most successful experiment in liberal polity. By liberal I mean the best ideas about human freedom to flow from the European Enlightenment, as well as the earlier Catholic and Reformation traditions.
It’s a mixed bag, certainly. But I’ll take it.
Many won’t, and their number is increasing. In 2013, for instance, a third of Americans said First Amendment protections—freedom of religion, speech, assembly, press, and petition—are too extensive, a triple increase from 2012.
We like freedom for ourselves, but we’re not so sure about anyone else. And of course that’s not exactly true. Some are very sure: They want everyone who doesn’t share their views to shut up, or else.
Our new blasphemy laws
There are several areas of public life where these freedoms are already cramped and getting worse. America’s universities, where half of students favor speech codes, are in meltdown right now.
If there were any doubts about whether blasphemy laws exist in America, ask those on the “wrong” side of issues like sexuality, gender, or the environment. A quarter of Democrats actually favor prosecuting those who disagree on climate change. And we’ve already seen reprisals for violating the new sexual orthodoxy, ranging from public shaming to forced ousters and legal sanctions.
Five truths to remember
Given this reality, it’s worth rehearsing a few truths that can help us navigate our current hostile environment.
1. Agreement is not an entitlement. It will shock some, but the world is full of individuals with their own minds and opinions, well formed or otherwise. To win those minds takes persuasion. Money, good looks, and flattery might also help, but the point is that nobody can simply demand and expect agreement with their positions. It must somehow be earned.
2. Volume is not validity. Whether in yelling or in mobs, increasing the volume does not validate an opinion. Pressure is not proof. In fact, ever-increasing volume is fair indicator of fanaticism, not reason.
3. Tolerance is a partial virtue. Tolerance means putting up with things one doesn’t like. But unless tolerance is balanced with some humility and deference, it flips to its opposite. Instead of making room for different views, it offers pretext for bullying others into accepting one’s own. Those demanding tolerance are usually the last and least to demonstrate it.
4. Reserving judgment is not a sin. Feeling forced to make up our minds on a subject is a good sign something is wrong. No one has the right to compel or coerce another to take any side on any issue. It is part of the inherent dignity of every human person to make up his or her own mind on any matter—or not. Anytime we feel forced, we should throw a flag on the play.
5. Resistance is not futile. To resist intolerance is both reasonable and sometimes required. That doesn’t mean we fight every battle. Some hills are worth dying on, others not. But if only for our own sanity, we must object—even if it is only within the province of our own souls.
Men will go mad
These are unsettling times to be sure. These five truths were once assumed by most of us. Clearly no longer. I’m reminded of Anthony the Great’s warning, spoken almost seventeen hundred years ago in the Egyptian desert:
A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad; you are not like us.”
That time is now. What all this probably says is that our grand liberal experiment is over. If not actually over, it’s facing one of its severest tests.
Image credit: Alternative Libertaire.