“Tyranny in democratic republics does not proceed in the same way, however. It ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us. You will retain your civic privileges, but they will be of no use to you. For if you seek the votes of your fellow citizens, they will withhold them, and if you seek only their esteem, they will feign to refuse even that. You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellow creatures, they will shun you as one who is impure. And even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they, too, be shunned in turn. Go in peace, I will not take your life, but the life I leave you with is worse than death.”
-Alexis de Tocqueville
It seems that in our current political discourse a person can’t express their opinion without being labeled a Marxist, racist, fascist, socialist, anti-poor, anti-woman, anti-God, anti-American and anti-puppy (just wait, it will happen). A liberal can’t propose a new government program without being accused of wanting America to become Soviet Russia and a conservative can’t even speak on issues like poverty or abortion without being called a racist or misogynist. It is obvious why this reality is bad for our country.
While we have a First Amendment that protects our speech from the government, legal protection is sometimes not enough. In his book Democracy in America Alexis Tocqueville talks about his fear that a tyranny of the majority would overcome America. He not only worries about the ‘hard’ tyranny of the government, but also a ‘soft’ tyranny of society. This soft tyranny stems from the fact that people are hesitant to speak out against the grain of society. To give a trivial example, a Yankee fan may be hesitant to express his support for the Bronx Bombers if he is in a Boston sports bar. He knows it is legal for him to do so, but he also knows that his beliefs may cause him to become the scorn of the majority. This is essentially what Tocqueville was talking about, only it applies to bigger issues such as gay marriage or abortion. It is not hard to imagine why a supporter of traditional marriage would be very afraid to express his beliefs on a college campus that has a weekly gay pride parade.
Sometimes this soft tyranny can be good. It makes racists like the KKK know that while they have a legal right to do what they do, their views are not supported by society. But the power of the majority of society to shame dissenters into believing a certain thing should be used sparingly and cautiously. Today, we use it almost daily.
We need to have a society where we can tolerate views that differ than our own. We can’t assume that just because Paul Ryan wants to reform welfare programs he hates poor people. Why is it so hard to believe that Ryan actually wants to help poor people, and he thinks that our current system is doing a disservice them? We need a society where people of good will (this is a key point) can speak openly without being shamed by the majority. Only in a free and tolerant arena can we discuss and find solutions to the issues of our time. The sad part is there are lots of good solutions out there, which we would realize if only we all calmed down and had a civil discussion with one another.