As he walked out of the constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin told his fellow citizens that he had “made a republic if you can keep it.” His reply contained a warning that still reverberates. The continued success of America’s journey depends on our ability to resolve our domestic differences through dialogue rather than force.
But recent trends are startling. “Cancel culture” has moved through the professions at breakneck speed. Elite judges have sought to jettison doctors, software engineers, comedians, artists and first responders for deviating from political orthodoxy on matters surrounding sex, marriage and transgender ideology.
More recently, pro-abortion advocates threatened any Supreme Court justice who would not do their will. Even before the court ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, there was attempted assassination, targeting of children, and vandalism. Abortion protesters have smashed windows in crisis pregnancy centers and even torched churches. Leading abortion organizations and many Democratic politicians have failed to condemn both the threats and the actions.
Polls show that a large majority of Americans believe freedom of expression is threatened by the cancel culture. Even the New York Times reports that 84% of Americans either believe we have a “fairly serious” or “very serious” problem with telling others the truth about what we believe. Despite the danger cancel culture poses to our political discourse and the functioning of society, few in power are doing anything about it.
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Like our elected officials, academic leaders give free rein to the “resigners.” For example, administrators at Yale Law School failed to quickly and firmly disapprove of the actions of students — future attorneys, jurists, legislators and CEOs — who chose to bang on walls and engage in verbal abuse and physical intimidation rather than getting involved with ideas they don’t like.
Yale students and pro-abortion haven’t persuaded anyone to change their minds. Instead, they have revealed a misplaced confidence in their own infallibility and an eagerness to denigrate and silence those who disagree. We all share responsibility for stopping the abandonment culture. Given how the elites fail to protect freedom of expression, ordinary citizens may be the nation’s last hope.
In a conversation with friends who hold different political views, I recounted the experience of being “cancelled” by a friend last summer. You and I haven’t spoken to each other since our dinner discussion turned into a debate that turned into a cold war. As I thanked them for their openness to dialogue, I searched for words to describe the opposite of “abandon culture.” Then it occurred to me that listening to someone with a different perspective encourages “a culture of honesty.”
A June 2021 study by the American Enterprise Institute found that 15% of Americans have ended a friendship because of politics. This number cannot be blamed on the elite. This number reflects the unwillingness of friends, family and neighbors to listen and try to persuade those who disagree with them.
Another poll showed that between 2016 and 2020, the percentage of Democrats who said they weren’t friends with anyone with very different political views increased 14 percent (12 percent to 26 percent). Independents were up 8 points (12% to 20%) and Republicans were up 2 points (10% to 12%). Taken together, these totals mean that a majority of Americans are not friends with anyone who doesn’t share their political views.
The big question is whether the 84% who oppose the cancel culture remain silent or put a stop to canceling.
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Instead of picking each other off or advocating that free speech is violence, we can choose to listen to each other. Scholar Daniel A. Cox, who oversaw AEI’s study, says there is much to be gained by nurturing friendships across the political divide. Americans with such connections are “less likely to have extreme attitudes and develop stereotypes of the other side.” Additionally, listening to honest disagreements can show us where we have misjudged and need to make a course correction.
Acknowledging that every American has the capacity to reason and the duty to live by his or her conscience could go a long way towards building a culture of honesty. Hearing disagreements takes humility, and persuasion takes patience. But both lead to genuine dialogue and promote integrity, the best hope for a well-functioning society that honors and rewards decency.
It takes courage to have conversations with neighbors, friends, and family members who disagree with us. But seeing each person as more than the sum of their political opinions with important gifts could allow us to preserve our republic.