People are weary of the angry, hateful rhetoric and violence, and many have just tuned out any political or current event discussions. It’s just better not to hear it, they say, than to have to deal with it.
If you don’t believe that today’s rhetoric has escalated beyond the pale, just ask a politician, teacher, newsperson, election official, medical professional or columnist. Better still, ask salesclerks, fast-food workers — just about anyone who deals with the public. They will tell you stories about face-to-face threats and insults, ugly intimidating cellphone or email messages, sometimes even aggressive and abusive actions they’ve endured. We seem to believe we can say anything we want, directed to anyone we choose, using any language we desire.
We recently came home to discover the rear driver’s side window of our car had been smashed. Glass was lying all over the ground and inside the car. This couldn’t have been done by a bird or a pebble kicked up from a mower. It was pure and simple vandalism, just like the long string of mailboxes we recently saw destroyed along a neighborhood street. These are not just “teenage pranks.”
When did we lose our civility? What happened to the socially acceptable manners and language we were taught? I would love to ask some of these ill-behaved men and women — yes, most are adults — “didn’t your momma teach you any better than this?”
My folks also taught us about restraint, and when we didn’t practice restraint, we learned the repercussions from not behaving in acceptable ways. Like it or not, there are repercussions to the intemperate words and actions we see all too frequently.
There is a scripted playbook for those, often politicians, who want power and money. They start by complaining about how they — and imply you, also — are a victim, discriminated against or even persecuted. Next, they tell you who is to blame for your miserable lot in life. The oppressor-to-be then cleverly makes you afraid of these ugly people, frequently employing the replacement theory, telling you that this bogeyman wants to displace you and put themselves in your rightful place.
The playbook next calls for frequent loud messages ratcheting up the severity, anger and hate. We have witnessed how these tactics work in collecting disciples. Before you realize it, a movement has begun. And we know too well that movements, once rolling, are hard to stop. It isn’t a big leap for this hate speech, now ramped up to fever pitch, to demand or imply that action is needed.
Jan. 6 is the prime example of the results of this strategy, as was the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, the attempted kidnapping of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and many other notable examples.
History records the evolution of these wannabe autocrats and oppressors. In times past, good people would rise up, speak out and turn away these haters. What is puzzling is our response to them today. Why are we unable or unwilling to stop these wrongful movements before they go too far?
I know we believe in free speech, even when we think it wrong or harmful and it’s not good manners to meet ugliness with ugliness. We want to believe these are trends that will peter out. And, you know, it might hurt my chances for promotion, be bad for business or make my friends and neighbors upset. So we remain quiet.
But our silence is interpreted as either complicit agreement or at least neutrality. New Yorker and self-proclaimed “thousandaire” George Hahn recently said in a podcast, “if you remain neutral in the face of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” He boldly proclaimed that we must decide to draw a line on disrespectful, demonizing hate speech with strong protests and opposition to oppression — and make no mistake, oppression is just what this is.
When good people keep quiet, the bullying continues, the attacks become bolder and the stakes become larger. When an NBC poll revealed that 71% of people believe America is moving in the wrong direction, that’s one thing. But it’s quite another when 30% believe that violence against our country can be justified, as a recent Washington Post/University of Maryland poll revealed.
Chants like “lock her up” become Jan. 6 insurrections. And all of this amped-up rhetoric and violence might explain why 43% believe a civil war will erupt in the next decade, according to an Economist/YouGov poll.
When will we draw the line? When will the silent majority say “enough”? I pray it happens before it is too late.
In a 1946 speech, Eleanor Roosevelt said of Hitler’s rise, “I have the feeling that we let our consciences realize too late the need of standing up against something that we knew was wrong. We have therefore had to avenge it, but we did nothing to prevent it. I hope that in the future, we are going to remember that there can be no compromise at any point with the things that we know are wrong.”
Tom Campbell is a North Carolina Hall of Fame broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program “N.C. Spin” that aired for 22 ½ years. Contact him at email@example.com.