These days everyone is screaming at everyone else. It would be better if we yelled less and listened more. But all this racket is preferable to the silence of an authoritarian society where such protests are not allowed.
This is the land of the loud and the home of the obnoxious. The First Amendment allows us to shout and protest. And last week the volume was loud. Shouting protesters disrupted Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Seventy people were removed from the chamber on the first day of the hearing.
The president commented on this in an interview with The Daily Caller. He said, “It’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters.” He supported throwing the protesters out. “To allow someone to stand up and scream from the top of their lungs and nobody does anything about it is frankly — I think it’s an embarrassment.”
The protests continued. It was distracting for those who were trying to listen to what was being said in the room. But this is what it sounds like to live in America.
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As Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing was rumbling along, the free press was doing its thing. Excerpts from Bob Woodward’s scathing White House exposé, “Fear,” were published. Rebuttals were written by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Then an anonymous op-ed was published in The New York Times, claiming to speak for the “quiet resistance” inside the White House.
In response the president tweeted, “TREASON?” He wrote, “If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once.”
We might note in passing that the use of CAPS in an email or a tweet is a sort of yelling. So even the president has turned up the volume.
While Washington is raging, the rest of the country is hollering about film, sports and the flag. Some called for a boycott of “First Man,” a new Hollywood film about astronaut Neil Armstrong, which ignored the American flag on the moon. At the same time, Nike celebrated Colin Kaepernick’s career-ending flag protest. Angry patriots burned their Nikes and ranted about the NFL.
All of this is made possible by the First Amendment. It would be easier if everyone just saluted the flag and shut their mouths. But liberty is essential for democratic self-government.
President Trump acknowledged this in his Daily Caller interview. He recognized Nike’s freedom to celebrate Kaepernick. He also admitted that he makes money when Nike profits since Nike is one of his tenants who pays him “a lot of rent.” He concluded, “it is what this country is all about, that you have certain freedoms to do things that other people may think you shouldn’t do.”
None of this is easy. The American philosopher Robert Nozick once said, “liberty upsets patterns.” Freedom overturns the applecart of our complacency. It is easy to assume everything is OK and everyone is happy when no one dissents. Dissent is disruptive. It is unsettling and uncomfortable.
Liberty creates conditions that political theorists describe as “agonistic.” The Greek word “agon” means struggle or contest. In an agonistic situation, conflicts are not resolved by cool, rational deliberation. Rather, they involve raised voices, symbolic actions, organized protests, and even civil disobedience.
We’ve seen all of these techniques employed in various ways this past week. It would be nice if we lived in a civil world, where we could reason together quietly and dispassionately. In an ideal world, reasonable people would reach consensus without raising their voices.
Our world is not purely rational. When we disagree about fundamental things, rational argument gives way to emotional outbursts. An outcry is not a good argument. But impassioned shouting is better than submissive silence.
In an authoritarian country, arguments are stifled and screams are repressed. Things are quiet there and peaceful. But they are also static, stale, and stultifying. Freedom is raucous and dynamic.
Americans won’t exchange our liberty for peace and quiet. There is at least one thing we agree on, which is that the First Amendment is fundamental to our democracy.
Dialogue for democracy
If you want to practice civil discourse and discuss the state of our democracy, you are invited to a “Dialogue for Democracy” event held to commemorate Constitution Day on Sept. 15, 9 a.m. to noon at Fresno State’s North Gym. This event is sponsored by the Fresno County Civic Learning Partnership and the Fresno State Ethics Center.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala