Jonathan Iwry | Dissentophobia: a societal condition

The Faithless Quaker | In a weak-kneed democracy, freedom of expression seems to have given way to freedom from expression

· July 4, 2014, 8:11 pm   ·  Updated July 9, 2014, 9:59 am

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Happy Independence Day. Apparently, we’re all coming together to celebrate our ’Mericanism over Keith Urban and explosives like one big happy democracy.

With mouths full of apple pie, it’s easy to forget our differences and avoid touchy subjects like religion and contraception. But do we set those topics aside because they’re unimportant, or because we’re discomforted by confrontation?

It’s not like the controversy has gone anywhere. Just last week, the Supreme Court issued a ruling with unsettling implications for the secular. The culture war, as they call it, is still alive and well.

Holding differing views is one thing — refusing to properly address those differences is something else entirely. People are all too willing to chant slogans and boo the political opposition, but ask them to explain their reasoning and they withdraw into their shell with a stammer. Ideological arguments end before they even get started, culminating in the grandly anticlimactic “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” How many times have you or your adversary ended a row with “That’s just what I believe”?

People don’t even seem to know why they believe (or believe in) what they do. It’s as though we’ve lowered ourselves from champions of idealism to what American writer H.L. Mencken  calls “idealism’s raw material,” something to be milked and manipulated by powerful institutions. The voter has lost his nerve, forfeiting his liberties for intellectual comfort and security. Having domesticated himself, what was once his pasture has become his cage.

While Mencken remembers our fall from grace with wistful regret, Isaac Asimov asserts that there has always been a “cult of ignorance” in the United States, and that what seems like a decline is actually a persistent misinterpretation of democracy, a “false notion … that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

The real issue is not that Americans shy away from serious ideological debate, but that they are unwilling to take accountability for their ideas and, therefore, for the democratic process as a whole. Their avoidance is but a symptom of a more fundamental disconnect between their desire for self-rule and their genuine level of commitment.

Nobody said democracy is easy, especially in a society as large and diverse as ours. Confronted with the realization that (gasp!) not everyone believes or wants the same things, we can be understandably hesitant to open ourselves up to cross-examination. But when so-called champions of democracy lack the resolve to actually defend their beliefs, something has clearly gone wrong. There’s something cowardly about scrambling for cover behind the First Amendment while demanding that mere opinion be entertained without question.

If anything, controversial issues should be pursued with greater emphasis. The conversations and confrontations we have with one another aren’t just for kicks — we argue because the things we disagree on matter to us, and subjects are controversial precisely because of their importance and complexity.

We should be encouraging disagreement, not avoiding it. The marketplace of ideas, as John Stuart Mill calls it, is necessary for a democracy to function. Our freedom to express ourselves is more than just a safeguard to protect individuals with differing views — it’s a mechanism intended to foster progress through information gathering and public consensus. Democracy is the ultimate form of crowd-sourcing, but self-rule requires that we critique our findings on a regular basis.

Think of our ideas as commodities in a more or less free market. Our entire economic system rests on the belief that competition can yield improvements in public well-being. If that’s true for material goods, how much more true for ideas. Society is always searching for the best solutions to its problems; by putting conflicting approaches together to duke it out, we refine our products and better inform our collective decision-making (as long as there’s good sportsmanship).

Our goal should not be to antagonize one another, but to reach informed and well-reasoned conclusions. This requires learning to separate ourselves from our beliefs — if we stop taking them for granted, it won’t feel so personal when people examine them.

Hiding behind the freedom to believe as you like might seem like a tempting escape, but it only prevents problems from being discussed and resolved. Perhaps one day we’ll cease to be so vain about our opinions and acquire a genuine taste for the naked truth.

Jonathan Iwry is a College 2014 graduate from Bethesda, Md., who studied philosophy. His email address is jon.iwry@gmail.com.

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