The Sad “Politics of Shut Up”

During our childhoods we all become familiar with these ultimate (and ultimately infuriating) words of parental wisdom: “Because I said so! That’s why!”  

As effective as this strategy might have been in the short term because it was backed up by the absolute authority (or at least the illusion of it) that adults enjoy over children, it failed in the long term because parental tyranny is ultimately self-defeating.  Pesky aspirations for autonomy cannot be suppressed forever, and the tougher and more unreasonable Mommy and Daddy are today, the sneakier (and perhaps more destructive or self-destructive) the inevitable rebellion against implacable authority will be tomorrow.

This is a lesson worth remembering as we wander into what looks to be the last, heedless gasp of governmental attempts to quell those whom the stern parents of moral certitude deem the unruly and ungrateful children—a.k.a. tens of millions of American citizens—who must be taught a harsh lesson regarding their misbehavior.

First come endless lectures about about your disappointing attitude and actions (see virtually any commentary from MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, etc.)

Next, they take away your phone (kick Donald Trump and roughly 70,000 other users off Twitter, de-platform Parler, and agitate for tougher social media censorship)

Finally, Mom and Dad call the parents of that “bad crowd” you’re running around with so they can be punished too (dox those with opposing beliefs, strive to have them fired from their jobs, and attempt to revoke the credentials and college degrees of those who express ideas you feel are wrong).

With the wisdom of age we can look back on the desperate and deeply dysfunctional moments of our childhoods for what they actually were: frantic parental attempts to reassert the authority that they felt quickly slipping away.  We lived and learned through the experience, although we probably made exactly the same mistakes trying to deal with our own disobedient offspring.  Humans are funny that way, and we are allowed to smile at our own foibles.

However, watching this same dynamic play out with those who write and enforce our nation’s laws, lead our educational institutions and information platforms, and provide our public safety is both disconcerting and frightening—and it is definitely not a laughing matter.

The overreaction is understandable, but its consequences could be catastrophic.  As worrisome as the security breach of Congress on January 6th was, locking down Washington, D.C. and putting 25,000 armed National Guard troops on the street corners in order to enable some shadow of a Presidential Inauguration is rather like your parents locking you out of the house because you missed your curfew: All you learn from the experience is that they’re total jerks, and any hope for trust and communication is greatly diminished.  

The overwrought fears concerning the potential for protests that might result in violence seem hypocritical after watching so many of our cities looted and burned this past summer; it cannot be the case that only certain people are allowed to angrily protest that which they believe is an injustice.  As much as many currently preparing to take the reins of power in our nation’s capitol might wish it to be otherwise, there is a divide in our nation that is deep and wide—and it cannot be bridged with a shiny bayonet.  If you come into office believing that roughly half of those whom you presume to govern must be forcibly silenced, deprogrammed, and re-educated, you are going to be deaf to the dialogue that will be necessary if you are to successfully lead our nation through dangerous and difficult times.

It will not long be the limitations of the “politics of shut up” become obvious, and the window for the frank and painful discussions that the Biden administration must now have in order to forestall long-term civil unrest is both surpassingly small and rapidly closing.  Allowing the more dismissive and punitive contingent of Democrats to predominate is a grievous and damaging tactical mistake at a moment when even the smallest degree of reconciliation would be welcomed by both sides of our political divide.  If the only response to the many, many Americans who feel their voices are either unheard or actively censored is a wagging finger of condemnation, I fear for the future of our nation.

Crushing dissent is like trying to hold a fully inflated beach ball under the water.  You can do it for awhile, but ultimately the effort is unsustainable.  When it does pop to the surface, you can jam it back down out of sight again, but it will be certain to reappear—and it is foolish to presume otherwise.

Sometimes you just have to be willing to listen to those with whom you disagree and adapt to the reality that ideas, judgments, and beliefs that differ from your own can be just as valid and important.  The most dangerous person in the world is someone who is absolutely, positively, and beyond any doubt certain that they are correct, and fanatics have a long history of causing the misery that they later blame on others.

Quasi-parental restrictions on speech and writing will only create ill will, cause anger to fester, and produce a more extreme and possibly violent response from those who are being told to shut up.  Being told that “it’s for your own good” rarely works with children—and it will certainly fail with adults.

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