Readers: I am honored to share with you this Election Week guest post by novelist, book critic and wise friend Isla McKetta:
Why I’m Afraid to Talk Politics in a Free Society
Election season 2012 is nearly over. Do you have any Facebook friends left? Regardless of where you live, I’ll bet there is a contentious race that is causing heated debate and if you haven’t unfriended someone for their beliefs (or been unfriended for yours), you know someone who has. Suddenly I’m afraid to share my political beliefs with my friends.
Is this what democracy looks like?
We hold these truths to be self-evident
“…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As a child in the US, I learned these words from The Declaration of Independence and to be proud of the men who stood up against tyranny to endow our nation with the freedoms of a democratic government. Hearing those words recited by teachers and parents, my young ears thought the world was a wonderful and free place.
And then I moved to Chile. I was seven and Pinochet was in power. I learned that people can be rounded up and killed for their beliefs. As Americans, my family and I were safe during the year we lived there, but every American history lesson thereafter reminded me how privileged I was.
I believe all men (and women) are created equal. Our two-party system does polarize us and I can understand why every year many of us are more afraid that our freedoms will be taken away from us. But we cannot protect our freedoms by taking away the freedom of others.
Congress shall make no law
“…respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Congress is not allowed to infringe on our freedom of speech, but as citizens we are not held to the same standard. We have the right to banish people from our Facebook walls if we don’t like what they say. Where does that get us? Being exposed to a different point of view should make our understanding of the world richer, not poorer. By censoring our friends and friendships, we make our minds narrower.
I spent a year in Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I met people whom I had been taught were my enemies and the enemies of freedom. But they were just humans, and even under fear of being sent away to a gulag, my new friends had actively fought off the tyranny of the Soviet Union. Our governments held us apart just as today in the US our political parties hold us apart. My life is fuller because I was exposed to these people I did not think I would agree with.
We the People of the United States
“…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
One of the things I love most about the Preamble to the Constitution is those words, “We the People.” We Americans are a diverse people with a wide variety of viewpoints, but we share this country, this constitution, and (I hope) this commitment to forming a more perfect union.
Reading the Preamble now, I see the words “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” I bless the liberty that you have to say things that make my skin crawl. I hope you will bless my liberty too. Your vote carries equal weight to mine and we are both doing what we think is best for this country.
How to talk to your friends about politics
Endowing ourselves with the authority to tell someone else they are wrong is getting us nowhere. The America I believe in is a place where we have the freedom to speak our myriad truths and to disagree. There are no stadium roundups and we will not be sent to a gulag.
Throw off the tyranny of peer pressure. When you see someone post a viewpoint you cannot abide, try asking them about it instead of harassing them. Really listen to where their beliefs come from. You will both grow from the experience. When we have multifaceted conversations about issues, we can create new ways of understanding and maybe even solving the issues. We can become one people of these United States and we might even find out we have more in common than we thought.
I voted for Obama four years ago because I believed in his ability to have these complex conversations and to find new ground for compromise. I am angry with the Republican Party for holding hostage President Obama’s attempts to create that middle ground. I am disappointed in Obama for not having a superhuman ability to transcend the system.
Unfriend me if you want, but I believe in the right to choose and the right to bear arms. I will vote for Obama this year because I believe in the necessity of always trying to have the important conversation, no matter what.
Now tell me about your beliefs. I am listening and I want to learn from you.
Isla McKetta, MFA is a novelist with socialist tendencies. She reviews books at A Geography of Reading.