I was half in the bag when I realized I had been arguing with her for twenty minutes. I looked up at the clock and found out it was actually an hour and I had been fully stuffed into the bag by good Scotch whisky and any free drinks I could weasel out of my friends. It was an argument filled with eye rolls and interrupted with large sips. We were arguing about words. These words did not include racial slurs, which should not be tolerated in any civil discourse as normal. “It’s just a word, it means nothing,” I would say. “Words have meaning,” she would answer. “And there should be certain things we can’t say.”
It was after this hour that I remembered we had just come from a march together. We had been friends one minute, arguing the next. “We’re on the same side,” I finally said. She is a good person and a good friend, but the argument was superfluous and I like to think I would not have entertained it if I hadn’t been almost on the floor. These pointless arguments are why liberals always lose.
As a liberal, there are problems I have with my own political association. We focus on frivolities, and have become the party of irony when it comes to free speech, religion and identity. We fight with each other more than anyone else and occasionally by violent means. For my beliefs, I have been placed into the party of liberal rejects, who are often treated like ignorant and out-of-touch pedagogues.
Before I am accused of it, I will say it first. I am privileged. I am privileged to live on Long Island; I am privileged to have been able to afford a higher education with the help of a scholarship and I intend to use that privilege to the benefit of society. None of which is relevant. However I am no stranger to intolerance and I do not preach tolerance for the intolerant. I propose the opposite. I have just as much fondness for the Nazis that shot at my grandparents than I do for those who imprisoned my Jewish neighbors. Although I cannot deny my own personal gratification when seeing a Nazi hit in the face, it’s antithetical to the beliefs of a liberal democracy. Resist doesn’t always mean kill and resistors never throw the first punch. Putting someone on trial for his or her actions is justice, not tolerance. Conducting brutal and illegal acts against another party in support of a political principle is terrorism. You are not a judge and the street is not a courtroom.
Free speech used to be a staple of liberal doctrine. Unfortunately that is not so true today. Words do matter, however there are many words that just don’t and we’re better not wasting our time on them. It is important we let people speak and write, and to deny these rights would be to undermine the very differentiation between civilized society and those opposed to it. There are limits to free speech. For instance, one cannot lie under oath. Those limits do not include shouting a speaker off a stage on a college campus or punching someone in the face while they’re giving a television interview. One can argue with a speaker or protest what they have to say but they cannot keep him or her from speaking. One has the right to disagree and to argue but one does not have the right to silence. That is a right that many, including the Nazis, assume they have.
We proclaim that one’s identity does not give them a right over someone else, no matter their background, skin color or gender preference. I do not claim that our society is perfect. Only that the foundations of our society give us the means to improve ourselves. Within those means is the belief that through civil discourse we may find solutions. One day the misguided detractors of this belief will realize we are all on the same side. Hopefully it will not be too late.
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