Epochs of human history have been tagged with a variety of monikers. We have seen, for example, The Age of Faith, The Age of Enlightenment, and The Age of Industrialization.
We seem to be, at this point in history, living in The Age of the Perpetually Aggrieved.
Unhappiness, injustice, anger, and protest have, of course, been with us for as long as civilizations have formed, flourished, and fallen. The lust for power, the hunt for wealth, and the interplay of outsized egos have driven both world history and the relatively shorter history of America itself.
Moreover, the quest for an elusive utopia—whether it be just one war, one prayer, or one tax increase beyond our hopeful grasp—has animated political, religious, and social revolutions for as far back as our recorded history can document. To believe that one’s ideas are both better and unassailable is perhaps the most human characteristic of all, and America today certainly has no shortage of people anxious to document our collective shortcomings and push their own ideas for changes forward.
However, one point needs be made at the outset in order to help us to better understand the bitterness of our differences: The solutions to what ails our nation today tend to diverge—although this is rarely acknowledged—over the very consequential matter of two different and irreconcilable views of humanity.
Those whose ideas tend to revolve around religious beliefs or strict enforcement of secular laws believe that humanity is obviously imperfect and must adhere to the laws of either God or man—though many times it is both—in order to rein in activities that will do damage to ourselves or others. Our freedoms must, out of necessity, be constrained by a moral code—and clear restrictions derived from that moral code—in order to prevent the inevitable onset of both sin and crime. Implicit in this system of beliefs is that certain behaviors and ideas are intrinsically and immutably wrong, and no amount of discussion can change this fact.
On the other end of the spectrum, we find those who believe that human beings are innately good and just, and all of our unhappiness derives from onerous religious and cultural constraints that crush our freedoms to pursue happiness unimpeded by outdated or bigoted ideas about moral or appropriate behavior.
Whether these individuals—either knowingly or unknowingly—worship at the altars of modern psychology or Karl Marx, the result is a visceral distrust of traditional social and cultural norms and an unwillingness to consider any argument that does not endorse unfettered freedom. Therefore, all manner of sexual expression must be endorsed, petty criminality must be excused, academic standards must be discarded, abortion must be an absolute right, and all efforts to reward work and discourage sloth must be resisted.
Although it is likely that the attitudes of most people fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, the loudest and most visible partisans on either side seem to cluster on the ragged fringes, so all public dialogue devolves into sneering and screaming. Given that money, attention, and power in our media-saturated modern age now flows to the most implacable absolutists for any position on any issue, it is thoroughly unsurprising that civil and respectful discussion is surpassingly rare today.
If one were able to skip back a hundred years ago, it would be easy to discern a gentler and less confrontational tone in many daily conversations—even with issues that were fraught with emotion—for two main reasons.
First, before mass communications enabled us shout at one another across an entire continent, most issues had to be settled locally. The simple fact that everyone had to live together the day after the controversy was addressed necessitated a more polite and circumspect mode of interaction. It did not do to insult the person who might be cutting your hair, cooking your food, or delivering your ice the very next day.
In order for a community to survive, rage-filled blood feuds could not be allowed to become the norm, which is the reason why small towns even to this day tend to feature more courtesy and less personal attack than big cities—although the bane of social media has certainly affected these areas as well. Ask any school teacher or town councilor who now must put up with being impugned on Facebook or TikTok because someone is unhappy with their child’s grade or the policies regarding the heights of residential fences whether social media promotes a sense of civility and respect for others.
Second, the rise of federal government power, influence, and intrusiveness has nationalized a great many matters that were once resolved locally, which gives total strangers the right to stick their noses into a wide variety of issues that were once the province of community leaders.
Every matter both big and small now must reckon with the baleful scrutiny of some federal bureaucrat who must justify their salary line by finding fault with every endeavor at compromise or reasoned judgement. Go ahead and try to manage your schools, police forces, natural resources, or housing locally without the omnipresent worry over whether someone a thousand miles away has raised a concern that has now started a federal inquiry that is designed to bend you to their will.
Moderation is catnip to extremists, who are happy to use the power of their keyboards to brand those they have never met as punitive bigots or domestic terrorists because they seek out solutions that encompass the views and values of an entire community.
Protest has, unsurprisingly, gone to a new and virulent level of toxicity over the past decade or so, which is a sad side effect of the instantaneous connectivity that has turned democracy into a spectator-driven blood sport. Problem solving is now secondary to the insults and unwarranted character attacks that thrill the true believers but thoroughly depress the average citizen.
In addition, extremism promotes a distinct deafness to the notion that opinions that differ from one’s own might be equally valid, and this obviates any need to restrain attacks on an opponent. Consequently, any tactic—however odious or contrary to the norms of our democracy it might be—is now considered both fair and reasonable.
The “by any means necessary” crowd that deems it proper to use harassment and intimidation without the least compunction is busily burning down what still remains of the sensible center in American politics while ensuring that fewer and fewer citizens will want to be directly involved in the leadership of our country—who, after all, wants to set themselves up to be pestered by bug-eyed wackos?
I am hopeful that the 2022 midterm elections will provide a necessary corrective because it seems to be the case that many voters are interested in charting a more moderate course for our nation. However, I worry about the additional damage that will be done as those who fear losing their grip on the power and money they crave turn to nuclear rhetoric and tactics out of fear and desperation.
Between now and November of this year, those of us who find the use of doxxing, vandalism, trespassing, character assassination, government-sponsored censorship and misinformation, workplace harassment, intimidation masquerading as peaceful street theater, and personal attacks disguised as commentary must speak up more openly and frequently in order to protest against those protesters who clearly care not for the damage they are doing to our nation’s democratic norms—and prefer to evade the law rather than respect it.
This is a step that will itself be condemned by those who rely on strident words and bad behavior as a substitute for reason and respect, but now is the time to protest against those extremists who lay claim to a right that none of us ever actually have: the freedom to libel and slander without consequences.