I’m Not Listening

In the 1790’s, a ferocious period of partisanship as well as a foreign war scare involving Great Britain and France led to the passsing of Alien & Sedition laws that made it a crime to speak out against the president (John Adams) but not the Vice President (Thomas Jefferson) who happened to belong to the opposite party.  Adroit diplomacy spearheaded by Adams led to the avoidance of war, but being a good statesman likely led to his political defeat in 1800.  Within fifteen years, the threat of permanent political minority status led to the setting up of a conference in Hartford, Connecticut that discredited the Federalists for good.  Here we have the establishment of a pattern, and this pattern has several elements.  We have ferocious political conflict within a dangerous world and actions against free speech that prefigure larger and more dangerous political divisions.  I wish to view these patterns as part of a script that we see playing out for us in the contemporary period and would do well to pay attention to [1].

In the 1830’s, Southern lawmakers put a gag rule on petitions involving slavery in the House of Representatives to prevent any discussion of a matter that was becoming increasingly contentious and would only get more so.  The freedom of petition, of course, is one of the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment, but this was insufficient defense.  Before too long postmasters in southern cities and towns were censoring the mails, refusing to deliver antislavery materials, and the communities of the South felt as if they were under siege and would no longer grant freedom of speech to those who were opposed to slavery, for fear that even the talk of freedom could encourage slave escapes and revolts or discourage the will of a slaveowning society to rule or ruin.  We know, of course, the end of this story, as it ended in fire and blood and the destruction of the South in the Civil War, a war brought on by their own revolt and rebellion.  Their unwillingness to listen to others and their determination to shut their ears to any calls for justice or respect for the views of others led them into a self-destructive war.

Whenever there are calls for civility or for action taken against political speech of one kind or another, there are reminders of the freedom of speech that is enshrined, like the freedom of religion, freedom of petition, and freedom of assembly, in the First Amendment to the United States constitution.  It is obvious, of course, that there is no need for the freedom of speech we approve of to be given constitutional protection.  No one ever showed hostility to speech that they liked and approved of.  Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this.  We have constitutional protections on speech because there are going to be things that people say that we do not approve of, and there are going to be things that we say that others do not approve of, and we need to get our big boy (or big girl, as the case may be) pants on and deal with it in a productive manner.  Even with the freedom to speak out we may have to face consequences, but we should at least not face jail time for freedom, as is the case in some countries.

A refusal to communicate is a sign of deeper problems.  If we cannot bear to listen to other people, we do not ultimately care what is on their minds and in their hearts.  We do not feel as if we are closely tied to them or feel as if we are the same sort of people that they are.  In such an environment it is hard to feel a member of the same community when we have little in common as well as little love or respect for others and no interest in bridging the gap.  We are in a state of our society where communication gaps are frequent and pervasive and serious problems.  In such a world it is little surprise that we should be so deeply divided.  Unity requires a great deal of signalling and communication, the willingness not only to speak with respect but also to listen respectfully and ask questions to draw others out and really get to know them.  Do we have the ability or even the interest to do that in our own lives?  I often wonder if we do.  It is hard for me to feel optimistic about such matters.

[1] See, for example:






About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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