The Sound of Silence

The Fire TrailThere are times when words carry so much weight the burden is either overwhelming or empowering.

Words filled with pride, arrogance, and contempt build walls that often cannot be breached. They are words that intend separation from the hearer, as though by building a barrier of disgust and derision, the speaker is somehow sanitized. True believers of any persuasion, political or religious, are tempted by this desire to be clean, and history has shown this to be true with Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and earlier in the religious purges of both Protestants and Catholics. Perhaps every era could own to these times of scorn and cleansing. 

At an LGBT event in New York City (September 9?), Mrs. Clinton pulled out those weighty hate words when she said:

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

According to recent definitions of hate speech, where the listener or reader defines such speech by his (or her) degree of disagreement and offense, would I qualify to file charges against Mrs. Clinton for making me feel wronged, slandered, or offended? I certainly do feel wronged, slandered, and offended. Or perhaps I simply need a “safe space” with nice music and soft pillows such as universities now offer students to escape words that trigger their disagreement and nurse their wounded feelings.

But then, thanks to Dr. Ben Carson and many others have challenged the heir apparent. For many highly esteemed Americans found Mrs. Clinton’s words deplorable and irredeemable. Dr. Carson used words that make sense and unify, rather than divide. He appealed to reason, not emotions:

“I believe in expanding opportunity, not welfare; that’s not racist. I believe every life is worth protecting, particularly the unborn; that doesn’t make me sexist. I believe marriage is between one man and one woman; that’s not homophobic. I believe in borders, the rule of law and our sovereign right to decide who to let into our country; that’s not xenophobic. I believe radical Islam is a mortal threat to America and Western civilization; that is common sense, not Islamophobia.”

I agree with Dr. Carson and do not consider myself racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or Islamophobic. I also consider myself an American and, just to be clear, quite redeemable.

It is the glory of these United States that our states are still united. Sort of, loosely. But that is how federalism works – a give and take, a respect for honest debate, never forgetting respect for other points of view, the right to speak peacefully.

I thought of this suddenly as I was speaking about my new novel, The Fire Trail, at Orinda Books yesterday. I wondered if free speech was truly dying, that liberty was no longer protected by law: When a baker is forced to go against her beliefs and take part in a forbidden ceremony; when schools are forced to go against their creeds and support forbidden “health” procedures; when preachers are jailed for preaching their beliefs, when climate change deniers are sued by climate change supporters; when “politically incorrect” speakers are targeted by the IRS.

When the executive and judicial branches of our government take over the legislative branch, it certainly appears like tyranny, downsizing to one branch.

The trends are clear, and it remains for every voter to judge the outcome in the next election, which may be our last. For speech is no longer free. Debate is silenced in the name of a morally superior oligarchy, an elite network of wealthy pundits in media, academia and government who desire to silence America through intimidation, derision, and contempt.  

But yesterday, free speech was alive and well at my local bookstore. I enjoyed introducing my characters to a few readers who encouraged me with their rapt attention and complete silence. No one shuffled. No one glazed over. I could almost hear their minds ticking and their hearts beating. I introduced my characters: Jessica and Zachary, grad students burned by unintended consequences of the sexual revolution and the fragmentation of American culture. I introduced Father Nate and his five cats and his crippled brother Nicholas in the upstairs bedroom. We entered Laurie’s Fine Books on College Avenue, the bells jangling, to meet the proprietress from Kenya and bask in her dazzling smile. And lastly, we heard Anna, fifty-seven, Comerford House docent, recount her memories of Nine-Eleven as she gazes at an American flag, rippling in the breeze at half-mast on the front porch of the house museum.

My guests at the book reading were quiet and attentive, because they were free to roam within my language, characters, and scenes, without thought of punishment. And I was free to speak.

But I feel fear is silencing America. We fear being thought unfeeling, unkind, mean. We want to be good, we want to see ourselves as good. Perhaps we are proud and should repent, but that is between each of us and our God, not Washington D.C. Regardless of our state of goodness, we are afraid we will be placed in the camp of the Evil Offenders, put in the village stocks or sentenced to exile by family, community, and nation, all for our deeply held beliefs.

It is not too late to correct the course. But tyranny triumphs when good men (and women) do nothing. Now who said that? Sounds like it might offend someone somewhere.

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