It’s no secret that America’s problem with divisive and destructive hate speech has proven more difficult to cure than Covid. Sure, you can ban people from Facebook and Twitter, but driving a problem into a dark corner doesn’t mean it’s going away. In fact, just the opposite occurs: germs, when left alone in the dark, tend to fester, regroup, and regain their strength. And when they burst back into view, we are shocked.
But we shouldn’t be. Most of us are guilty of the human tendency to trust our own eyes and ears. If we can’t see or hear something, it doesn’t exist. Problem solved. Life is good.
Until it isn’t. Until once again we have to deal with the ones busy hating all those they perceive as oppressors. Depending on who is doing the hating, the oppressors could be white people, black people, brown people, Asians, the rich, the poor, the gay, the straight, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, the religious left, male chauvinists, women’s libbers, white evangelicals, the Never-Trumpers, the Proud Boys, Occupy Wall Street, the KKK, Hollywood producers, Republicans, Democrats, the New World Order, the Illuminati, the Masons, QAnon, the United Nations, communists, socialists, Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or any of the other perceived unnamed and unaccountable behind-the-scenes string-pullers who, it’s whispered, secretly run everything.
It’s enough to make everyone mad at someone. And maybe, thanks to all those festering dark corners of the internet, our national problem is actually even worse than we think it is. But what can we do?
About the overall problem of hate speech and hatred in general, nothing. Sad, but true. Stamp out one chat room and another one springs up. Supply and demand—the American way. And besides, I can’t stop you from hating and berating anyone. All I can do is examine my own inner darkness and fix myself. All you can do is fix you. Sorry, but that’s the only way it works—one soul at a time.
These days we are all very clear about our American freedoms. We love our freedom of speech and religion, the right to bear arms, and we’ve all signed on for the pursuit of happiness. But while we’re all so busy being free, we’re often setting aside the increasingly-quaint notion that with each American freedom comes an American responsibility—the responsibility of each individual to govern himself.
And to be clear, what I mean by governing ourselves is to deliberately self-limit our actions in the exercise of the freedoms we hold so dear. We all know that absolute freedom would mean absolute anarchy, yet we merrily keep pushing the envelope.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way we talk to—or at—each other. We hide behind our walls of freedom to lob verbal grenades at our neighbors, blithely blind to the reality that incendiary words can lead to violent actions, and actions can easily hurt us all. This isn’t rocket science.
We all know the first verse of Katherine Bates’ immortal “America the Beautiful” that pays homage to our spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Less well known are the final words of the second verse:
“America! America! God mend thine every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”
Well, that’s annoying. But wait—are century-old songs even allowed to still be relevant?
Let’s hope so.
Bottom line: Sure, I can say ugly and hateful things, but why would I want to? I’m an American. I’ve been taught that democracy can only thrive when its citizens practice the self-restraint in both words and deeds that prevent our freedoms from running amok.
I recognize the quixotic nature of this little rant. The idea of patriotic self-control is now withering in the unmanageable and anarchic freedom of the internet, where there’s always someone willing to host a site in a dark, digital corner to create another virtual petri dish to spawn the unfettered growth of hate.
Just as there are always some who view our fragile freedoms as monolithic absolutes to be exploited to their farthest limits—and just as there are always those who have become wrongly convinced that self-control is for cowards.
Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist living in the Magic Valley. Connect with Chris on Facebook and Instagram at Chris Huston-Finding My Way and at chrishustonauthor.com.