Almost two decades ago, Billy Joel wrote the song “We didn’t start the fire.” The lyrics provided an interesting viewpoint on the problems of the world. As it seems with every generation, there exist feelings of losing the essence of society, of nostalgic laments that on the present course all will be lost. That the fires of thought and behavior threaten to lay waste to the foundation of civilization. It’s understandable to have such feelings and those feelings are greatly enhanced during times of national or international hardship. But Mr. Joel was correct – when haven’t there been such fires?
Humans are fragile creatures and that makes us fearful. But we are also resilient creatures and we ultimately correct our course to a path that feels, for the moment, more true and safe. Capable of horrific acts and actions, we often forget that the spark that ignites the horrible fear is the same spark which can ignite the beautiful.
The spark is words.
Language is our greatest asset and our greatest liability. Communication can create peace and it can create war. We can select words to describe our cruelty or we can select those that celebrate our kindness. If there is a new and dangerous fire burning today, it is not the fire of war, or of poverty, or of corporate profits, or moral abandonment. Those fires have, as Billy sang, always burned. Man has always warred, children have always gone hungry, companies have always sought financial success, and definitions of moral behavior have always ebbed and tided between cycles of liberation and puritanism. But the fact that these things have always existed does not mean that they always must or that they always will.
Today’s fire is different. And although it feels like a clash of ideologies, we should be reminded that people have seldom shared a single belief in politics, religion, or liberty. Today we face not an issue of ideological or philosophical difference. Today we face an issue of intolerance. A time when the loudest voices are not those of common sense or of common good. A time when we have lost sight of the possibility that it is okay to agree to disagree or to set aside rash actions in order to ponder outcomes and consider different viewpoints. Today the loudest voices are those who speak from both sides of the extremes from all sides of the planet. Screaming voices of intolerance, focused on the smallest insults and ready to wage wars of public relations and those of blood at the slightest threat to remote idealogical opinions that further the beliefs of the few at the cost to the many. A time when we can concede nothing for fear of giving up everything. Each argument for or against highlighted with selective examples that never represent the norm or the average, but only serve to provide one-sided support for a single contention.
There is no evidence that the media can help end intolerance. If such communication ever served to inform the public that time seems passed. Media coverage is canned in political doctrines, organized by cable channel and serves to serve the ratings. If you believe in one ideology you view one set of stations, if you believe in another then you choose a different set of stations. It provides peace of mind knowing that you are right because they said so on your station, it creates unease because they so eloquently confirm that people who don’t agree with you aren’t just wrong but in fact evil. Your side wants what is good and fair and proper and their side wants what is dangerous and unfair and wrong. Peace will come when they are dead or when they surrender their evil ideology. It is not a battle in the shadows but one in the full light. Each side open to questions because every question is an opportunity to provide the same answer – their answer. It is the formula of intolerance to say the same things repeatedly and loudly until people agree or give up in frustration. Intolerance is a game won through the attrition of reason.
Bloggers and authors however have choices. They can join in the emotional storm, close their minds to understanding, and join in the screaming. They can add their voices to the winds of intolerance and hope that they speak louder or more often than their foes. Or writers can be something more. They can be the responsible commentators that mass media refuses to be. They can be the voices of rational contemplation. A social venue that welcomes opinions and upholds the rules of tolerance and civility. A place where the only outrage is outrage for those who won’t respect another’s belief, fears, concerns and opinions. Because isn’t that really the cause of all the screaming? Aren’t the harsh words, the demonizing, and the absolute intolerance really about fear? Fear that we might lose what we have, or not have what we desire. Fear that understanding is synonymous with defeat. Fear that tolerance may lead to concessions and concessions will be the beginning of our end.
I have opinions – many strong opinions. You might find them vastly contradictory and impossible to label. You might not agree with some, celebrate others, think more of me one minute and less of me the next. You might decide that I’m one of you or reject me for being one of them. If I shared my thoughts on politics, religion, welfare, gay rights, gun control, abortion, world aide, military intervention and public education you might decide to “un-follow” me. You might do so to punish me for disagreeing with your views. You might do so because of fear that my words may tear at your moral fabric or because your god disapproves. You might feel that such intolerance is justified. You might believe that my beliefs preclude me from being nice, or good, or kind.
I would not think unkindly of you for your decision. I believe in tolerance. I believe in your right to your opinion, your right to voice that opinion but I also believe, to coin a phrase, that your right to use your fist ends at my nose. Because of all the vast opinions I hold, liberty is perhaps the strongest.
Liberty means tolerance. It does not mean perfection. Liberty sometimes means that we will make mistakes, that things will go wrong, that people will suffer, that things will often be unfair. There is no perfect ideology for all and no perfect system from which to cure every ailment of this planet. Liberty, however, for all it’s potential short comings promises something else. It promises that regardless of our mistakes, of our shortcomings, of the acts we wish we could undo, that regardless of all those things, liberty means that we have the opportunity to do better, to be better, to try harder and to find another way tomorrow. Intolerance is the opposite of liberty because it means that even if our way doesn’t work we can not concede the shortcomings, but instead we must blame failure on those who don’t think as we do.
My daughter has an art project this week. She needed to illustrate a propaganda type poster. Her choice will most likely stir the proverbial public education pot. I feel certain that she will be asked to select something different because I feel certain that they expect her concerns to be over puppies, and eating animals, and climate change. I’m also certain she will refuse and I will be making a trip to the principals office. It’s understandable. She’s seventeen and both stubborn and passionate – a deadly combination in a public education system. I take full responsibility because we are a home of strong opinions and thoughtful debate. Those opinions are not all same. I want my children to think for themselves. To research, to understand, to be strong but tolerant, to stand firmly but with kindness, to learn from others and to teach, to achieve but to be charitable, to fight for their goals and to fight for others, to have opinions and to respect the opinions of others. My desire that they learn these things means that I must embrace that they form beliefs contrary to my own.
My daughter’s art selection is an example of such tolerance. I will have to defend her position, even if I do not wholly agree with her position. I will have to defend a contrary opinion on the principle that in our society never is our responsibility to stand up for her right to express her ideas greater than at times when we disagree with those ideas. And in truth, although the phrase was not her own, her selection is brilliant because it is ironic. If we look past our own feelings of what is moral, of what is constitutional, of what we agree or disagree with, then we can see the very point that she wishes to make -tolerance doesn’t change our opinions, it provides us the ability to understand why others don’t want to change theirs. And from understanding humankind gains its most precious commodity for the future – Hope.