By Jean Binder on March 17, 2012
“I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These were words in which good citizens of every stripe once found national solidarity. A summation by Evelyn Hall on the works of Voltaire, this phrase was commonly used. It was the flame beneath our melting-pot of a nation.
As a people we understood, that even in the face of disagreement, we could respect our common humanity. Conflicting opinion would not be denigrated or restrained. We would die to defend one's right to think differently - to express thoughts we might find disgraceful. Yes, once upon a time, such a perspective was celebrated and it showed the world what it meant to be a free people.
Today, I only hear these words from the very old, and very seldom, yet hear it from conservatives, liberals, and moderates alike. It seems one’s particular persuasion used to make little difference, the axiom still held true. Their parents had been immigrants and they lived through times when all had to pull together.
Differences challenged then too, yet were respected, so wars could be won, communities built and peace proven. Most everyone understood this. It was the“American Way.” Now we seem to have lost this perspective almost completely.
It is not just on National TV that one hears strident voices insisting on their own way -actually describing the opposition and their aims as “evil.” It has reached the outposts of ‘Hays America’ in letters to the editor, in opinion articles, and in daily conversations. This negative zeitgeist seeks to ascertain who is religiously correct and whose political party has gone to the dark side. Both sides seem to disdain the moderate.
So is intolerance itself an expression of political and religious freedom? I would say it is actually freedom turned in upon itself to where some can enjoy it and others may not. Because of this intolerance we hear little talk of dying so that others may express their ideas.
In fact, I have observed folks who in their daily lives pretty much agree on every value and even every point of personal faith and behavior, but differ totally on the this issue of tolerance. The less tolerant will proceed to bash the tolerant as if they had nothing in common.
My point is – How did our view of what it means to be an American become so narrow? How did our concept of religious faith become so mean-spirited? I think the old people had it right.