I remember the first time I experienced freedom of expression and politically diverse views being expressed simultaneously in public. I had just started graduate school and Senator Joe Biden, who was Vice-President at the time, was invited to speak my school on women’s rights and reproductive health. As a strong supporter of a women’s right to choose, the Vice-President had been invited to talk about his work in supporting that movement and receive an award. On that day the campus was absolutely mayhem. There was a big group of prochoice supporters chanting on one side, and a bid group of demonstrators that are pro-life, i.e. anti-abortion.
The demonstrators were carrying big slogans and yelling so loudly, particularly louder when the Vice-President arrived. He walked in seemingly unbothered by their chants, and they kept calling him names including “murderer” for supporting abortion rights. After the event ended, all groups collected their slogans on other materials and went about their day. I felt that I was in the middle of a movie. It was an astounding experience that taught me about myself and about tolerance.
Although this was over a decade ago, I remember it as if it happened yesterday. The first observation was shock, I had never seen two groups with such diverse views, scream and yell at each other in such close vicinity without a fight breaking out or one group wanting to violently silence the other group. Secondly the police, who were at the scene, were mere observers. They in no way intervened except to create a safe walking path for the Vice-President to pass through on his way in and out. Thirdly, I had never seen someone yell and scream at such a high-level politician, and even more shocking nothing happened to that person, like being arrested, after she yelled at him and called him names. In the words of the ever so witty former president of Zimbabwe, the late Robert Mugabe, was once quoted saying the he can guarantee freedom of expression, but it’s freedom after expression that he’s not too sure about.
I learned then and there that having never been exposed to such things had really affected my outlook on politics. Our cultures and religions do not encourage open and honest discussions. Rather, our cultures and religions have encouraged secrecy, not speaking uncomfortable truths and have often been used as a means of silencing those with views different than the accepted one. These are among the major factors that have contributed to our intolerance that is costing us lives and causing so much damage today. We are at a point where as a nation, we do not want to have uncomfortable conversations. But that’s not where it starts, we as individuals are incapable of having the uncomfortable conversations.
When it comes to our politicians, they are also not willing to express their diverging views in front of each other and have any kind of healthy debate in public or even in parliament, where contrary to what one should expect, debate culture is almost non-existent. A part of me understands why everyone feels comfortable talking to those who support their views instead of putting to the test of the general public, because that’s what we have all been taught to do, to simply preach to the choir. But as politicians they have a very important role in showing that they are willing to put their ideas to the test and debate with their opponents. And after the
debate, shake hands exchange nice words and have lots of photo opportunity to show that just because they disagree, they don’t have to kill each other with sticks or bazookas. We can disagree and still live in the same country, city, home. In doing so they will start teaching by example and would have more credibility when denouncing violent protests that are ravaging our cities. Speak out against violence and speak to each other in public, that’s the only way forward for all of us.