The Tally Stick

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The culture of intolerance in a democratic society

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Over the previous fifteen months we have witnessed the rise of intolerance in America.  From my perspective it started in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.  This incident involved Officer Darren Wilson and the unarmed suspect, Michael Brown.  It was alleged by the public that the shooting was unjustified based on accounts that Mr. Brown (African-American) was unarmed and was being profiled by police officer Darren Wilson (Caucasian) in a case of a robbery at a local store.  The APB description was interpreted by the police officer to fit Mr. Brown’s profile. There was an altercation in which the ultimate outcome was the shooting of Mr. Brown after he allegedly attacked the officer and went for his firearm.  After the investigation, the Grand Jury did not feel it had enough facts to support an indictment of the police officer for an unjustified killing of the unarmed suspect.

This sparked an outrage from swaths of the public and started riots in Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area.  In the proceeding months, a few more high profile police officer shootings occurred involving unarmed African-Americans.   Some of these cases had video evidence that still did not lead to any prosecutions.  Growing sections of the public were not accepting of these facts.  During the unrest and subsequent protests, we saw the rise of a new political activist movement called Black Lives MatterThis movement seeks to reform policing and seek justice in what they term “extrajudicial killings” of minorities by police officers across the United States.

As time goes, the movement has become more active and militant (in a non-violent but aggressive stance), infamously interrupting, civil rights activist and Presidential hopeful, Sen. Bernie Sanders.  This is an important footnote because we have not seen a rise of cultural activism in America since the decade of the 1960s.  In the 1960s we have a major change in America, protests of Vietnam, rise of the hippie movement as a rejection of traditional America,and killings of civil rights leaders (Dr. King, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Fred Hampton and various others during this struggle).  This sent a stark message that if you challenge the status-quo enough, you might pay with your life.   This not only derailed many of these movements but also chilled the era of grassroots activism.

Fast forward to 2015, we are currently seeing the rise of new activism in America.  It is gaining strength while becoming more intolerant to any dissenting opinions, or attempts to more moderate views, to address concerning issues that revolve about inequality, racism or cultural appropriation, to name a few.  Its roots seem to be stemming from college campuses, which have always been fertile grounds for alternative intellectual thinking and activism.  The problem is that many of these issues do not seem to carry the same breadth and depth of the civil rights era.  I mention the civil rights era because it seems like all struggles are expressed to have the same gravity.  I don’t mean to offend, but you had very overt actions and clear policies that were against minorities.  Other than the misplaced episode in which a line of student protesters got maced in full view of the public, we do not see the iconic pictures of African-Americans getting fire hosed, dog attacked or beaten fragrantly in the open as we witnessed in the 1960s.  This does not minimize these issues in any way but, at the same time, it is a short-sighted view to see any perceived affront as a good reason to appeal for others to support protest in an aggressive manner like we saw in previous decades.

Yes, we have serious issues of policing in America and a disproportionate number of criminal proceedings are against minorities. On the other hand, we have made real improvements since then and we are still progressing forward in these areas today.  What is happening is that progress is being slowed because we have people taking a divisive approach when we need an inclusive solution.  This ultimately pushes people farther apart and if you are from a contrasting race, and don’t fully agree with that side, you are called a racist sympathizer.

This leads us to the point of this article.  What I have witnessed during these protests is the growing intolerance of opinions; people disagree while disregarding the logic or solid reasoning presented.   In the example of Black Lives Matter, critics say All Lives Matter, this was a direct challenge to the idea that incidents that happen to African-Americans should be on a pedestal compared to other races if the same incident occurred.  It is ironic that when inequity happens we should favor certain groups, rather than all, when solving inequity: this should be a long-term solution to bring us all closer as a nation.   Instead, we see a media-fuel movement to Balkanize groups into identity politics where you need to look first at your racial background or social-economic position to see where you should stand and support.  That is completely in contrast to what America was founded for, even if it took us until to today (2015–beyond) to make good on that promise.

This has succeeded in turning huge groups of young adults into activists with a hammer looking for nails.  We are not a perfect nation nor are we perfect people and expecting more is wishful thinking.  Among democratic values, tolerance is one of the most important.  What it means is that I accept a free and open society and I am willing to tolerate opinions that I disagree with.   In exchange, I will be tolerated for having opinions that may be outside of the normative consensus or what others call, political correctness.  Democracy is not a winner takes all endeavor.  Functioning democracy means you incrementally progress with debate, compromise and using the bully-pulpit to influence public opinion so that truly universal ideas are moved ahead for the whole nation, not just small segments that scream the loudest (not saying there isn’t time to be loud).

The Atlantic recently published two articles that have been written to address this growing intolerance and confusion. They discuss what society is supposed to provide and how we should handle these issues.  In The Coddling of the American Mind & The New Intolerance of Student Activism they addressed issues that are all revolving around this issue of how we should react to things we find offensive and what kind of environment we should creating to train our younger generation.   A quote from The Intolerance of Student Activism sums it up, this is an exchange between student protesters and administrators about an email regarding appropriate Halloween costumes; “Then why the fuck did you accept the position?! Who the fuck hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!“. This was in response to an email sent around to students on the subject that if they were offended by Halloween costumes then they should look away or go tell them they are offended, they should not try to appeal to a third party to solve their problems.  In the video you can see the Yale students using the same tactics as Black Lives Matter to shut down any two-way discussion that we would expect in a civil democratic society and instead shut the opposing opinion down by ultimately telling him that he was not even worth listening to and he was “disgusting”.   That is not tolerance and honestly it sounds very authoritarian at its core.

Now I am witnessing many young people looking for any issue that may be considered unfair or mean and using that as a platform to demand change, no matter how trivial it may seem, in a manner that is not collective resolution, but instead as an entitled demand.  With this rise of political correctness, aggressive activism and the idea that they know (intolerance) the right way to handle situations, these movements have led to a very divisive environment where it chills (censors) free speech, which is supposed to be one of our highest values in our democratic culture.  We are regressing in this area and it allows the rise to more extreme ideological elements which have a form of intolerance to opposition in their dogma and more extreme solutions if they do not get their way.  That is dangerous if you let it grow without challenge.  I cannot explain to you the utter demonization that is happening in American politics to the political candidates leading up to our Presidential Election in 2016.  Each side is making the other into literal monsters so that even if you agree with one of their positions but disagree with many, you are a political pariah and should be socially shunned.  That is a sad state of affairs if we truly embrace our democratic values.

This was written to illustrate how this movement of intolerance on the back of real issues and injustices is growing and it is drowning out many reasonable voices that dare challenge the popular consensus.  This is feeding the extremes and we will continue to see it pour into our politics, daily lives and relationships.  I personally have felt more isolated in my social media because I see pot-shots taken on all issues that are said to be conservative or traditional.  I see the strong support and many mindless opinions.   It makes me almost not want to bother engaging because of the backlash you have to endure just to reason a contrarian opinion that challenges any current political correctness.   We did cover a lot of ground in this piece but I hope this will show you that these are not isolated incidents but actually a growing trend that could lead to a cultural revolution under everyone feet and once it is complete many will feel like strangers around their fellow citizens.

Written by Tally Stick

November 22nd, 2015 at 6:55 pm