The Demonization of Dissent

It's become an avalanche and it's ugly and frightening. It's the demonization of dissent - and it is a crisis we must address.

No longer is it simply vitriolic diatribes that reflect political divides. Much more disturbing, it now encompasses social, business, and policy issues - from race, personal dignity and college campuses calling for sanctions and boycotts of Israel to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and product ingredients. While there is critical need for robust and heated debate in a civil society, the personal vilification of dissent will inevitably contribute to the cannibalization of our democracy. Constructive conflict has been the elixir of our democracy and angry contempt for opposing views will be its demise.

Who can say what has triggered such meanness? The explosion of social media and the open-forum Internet explain some of it. They have amplified what had been marginalized voices. Many of them, of course, should be heard for their reasoned views. But far too often, whether on Facebook or blogger commentary, they spew profane disparagement and slander at anyone or anything with whom they differ.

Call it the new digital divide. The cyber wall it has built provides protection to those who want no part in offering context, dimension and human connectivity to important social, policy - and political - issues. Instead, we use violent language, name call and personally attack. No wonder more publications have stopped allowing comments to their opinion articles and columns.

To a degree, this demonization of dissent also reflects a millennial mindset emerging far too frequently. Especially among the privileged (or the faux elite). I don't wish to overdo this, but on a growing number of college campuses, a disturbing movement spreads to prevent offensive speech. Emotional reasoning dominates today's discourse and it's not simply expressions of being offended that occur but demands that a professor or speaker apologize or be dismissed or disinvited for something they've said or believe.
The proof? Increasingly, celebrated comedians refuse to appear on college campuses because their brand of humor offends those who seek to revive a new brand of political correctness.

Then there are our politicians, including the current roster of presidential contenders from both parties. They are spreading this evil disparagement that too often is personally vindictive. Donald Trump and his nasty barbs epitomize this, but he's not alone. Just revisit either of the two major GOP candidate debates. Gone is any semblance of a reasoned discussion of, say, Planned Parenthood or immigration or global peace negotiations.

We must tackle this crisis - and that's what it is - because it creates a culture where responsible voices are deciding not to speak up for fear they will be chastised, vilified or worse. This goes against the very essence of our constitutional values where citizens rule - not unruly citizens - and practice civil discourse. Where the majority rules but not to the exclusion of the rights of minorities. Where we uphold the basic human rights of our citizens - which includes the freedom of speech, within reason.

How do we confront and deal with this scourge? I grapple with that question daily it seems and wish I knew the answer. But, perhaps we begin by acknowledging the growing chasm and organizing a dialogue about civil discourse and the new rules of productive debate in which the primacy of facts, context, and real homework are celebrated. And emotion, while important, does not supplant reason. Similarly, we can't continue to allow opinion to trade as fact. We must involve our statesmen, our clergy, our respected businesses, academic and community leaders and, especially, our media - from commentators such as John Stewart, David Brooks and Brett Stephens to broadcast and social media channels and even Hollywood perhaps.

Responsible leadership is required. And we're looking for honest brokers committed to intellectual integrity and the fulsome exchange of controversial points of view with an ever keen eye on our traditional democratic values.

Who's in?