Is This “Freedom of Speech”?

These are a few of the crude boxes we are sorted into by our society and culture, or by ourselves. The problem with boxes is that they block what we could learn from others.

Not long ago I ran across a children’s book that belonged to my mother when she was a little girl in the 1920s. Merely mentioning the title of the book would be considered racist and offensive today, but it was about little black children. I loved it when I was little—too young to see what some would see in it now.

The little children in that book were a lot like me. They liked the same things I did, got into trouble for the same things I did, were scared of the same things that scared me. I thought I would enjoy playing with them. Of course I could see that their skin was not the same color as mine, but why should that make any difference?

As a little boy, I also had a colorful storybook called Little Black Sambo. The title character was dressed like a young Indian prince and obviously lived in a place where one might encounter tigers. I thought the way he outwitted those tigers was pretty darned clever. I was afraid of tigers—an older cousin had tricked me into believing a tiger might be lurking in the dark in our attic—so I hoped I might be just as brave if I ever met a tiger.

There were few African-Americans around me in the area of South Texas where I grew up, but there were many Latinos. When I had opportunities to play with other children, it didn’t occur to me to think of the color of their skin or their way of speaking English or their family background. Why should that matter?

But something happened to all of us on the way to growing up.

I am reminded of a song sung by the character of Lieutenant Cable in the movie South Pacific: “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” The song tells us that we are not born with prejudices, but we learn them from people who are influential in our lives.

As a person of faith, I believe that prejudice is not natural to our spirits—that in spiritual terms it is an aberration. Why should one child of God distrust or dislike another because of something so superficial as skin color? Prejudice and bigotry are worldly, mortal concepts taught and instilled by people who let fear and hate dwell in their hearts.

But we live in a world where hate and fear are strong, and they have created a social atmosphere in which words are weaponized. More and more, government and special interest organizations focus on the differences between us, convincing us that the differences are more important than the similarities we all share. Efforts to remove barriers somehow seem to drive us farther apart.

For some people, the differences between us have become insurmountable obstacles that prevent open discussion of the things we have in common. In many instances, extremists on both ends of the spectrum of opinion control the debate, and they seem more interested in living behind walls than in an open world. 

As an old white man and a person of faith, I feel that in today’s world I might not be permitted to have a dialogue with someone of another race or gender orientation without first agreeing that they are right and I am wrong; I would be required to accept the idea that I am a member of an oppressor group and my religious views are simply the product of prejudice. The choice seems clear: give up my own heritage and my faith if I want to have any common cause with them.

And yet, as a lifelong believer in “justice for all” and “one nation, under God . . . indivisible,” I find it hard to discuss some issues with fellow conservatives. Any talk of breaking down barriers between us and others who see things differently is dismissed with the “woke” label.

I am reluctant to express my feelings openly on social media for fear of reprisal. Some liberal thinkers have said this response is a cop-out, a refusal to face the issues. No, it isn’t. I mean it. I’m afraid. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has paid a high price for expressing views that differ with others on transgender issues; she has been labeled a hater, verbally attacked, and threatened with rape or murder. She has been villainized for writing of her own experiences as a woman. I realize some will not agree with her opinions, but I have not been able to find any hate in them.

Briefly, I opened a Twitter account, hoping to engage in dialogue on important issues. What I found on that platform was hate, anger, bigotry, and a lot of misinformation that people clung to because it affirmed their biases. Civil discussion on social media seems almost nonexistent.

I don’t know if there’s any way to achieve this given our current social climate, but I long for a day when we might actually talk about public issues with each other as reasonable individuals without retreating behind our shields of self-identification and keeping one hand on our ideological swords or spears. 

Whatever our color, ethnic background, commitment to faith (or lack of it), we are family. Why should we be at war with one another?

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