Ending nation’s polarization begins with understanding First Modification

A major reason for the country’s polarization can be found in the recently published study by the Knight Foundation on freedom of expression. It is clear that too many Americans fail to understand the importance of free speech and the functional interdependence required to implement this basic human right. In principle, citizens can express themselves in exchange for granting other citizens the same freedom. In addition, the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the government from restricting citizens’ extensive freedom of expression. The Knight Study shows that too many Americans are unaware of these essential beliefs in a free society.

A healthy democracy requires a healthy First Amendment atmosphere. When corners of society resign themselves to suppressing the expression of alternative views, repression and authoritarianism inevitably follow. This type of community censorship is bad enough, but when some citizens want to give the government the green light to crack down on non-compliant or unapproved prospects, a nation is on the path to arbitrariness. Evidence of such warning signs can be found in the Knight report, which surveyed over 4,000 American adults across the country.

A disappointing 26 percent of respondents believe that “the government should forbid anyone from sharing political views that are offensive to some”. Granted, the poll’s statement lacks context and is hypothetical, but this statement should be easy to work with for any red-blooded American. Equally appalling, 32 percent of respondents are that the government has the ability to block or censor online news providers. Constituents would be shocked if even a fraction of Americans were willing to allow such state regulation of expression regardless of its content.

The Knight study also shows Americans are confused about the importance of enabling a wide and vibrant market for ideas.

Some citizens seem to believe that they have a corner with sensible ideas and see no need for others to think differently. Only 77 percent of Americans agree: “Having other points of view, including those that are ‘bad’ or objectionable to some, promotes healthy debate in society.” The other 23 percent are apparently confident of their own Ideas are neither bad nor offensive.

Only 90 percent of respondents agree that “people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions”. In the United States, that percentage should be 100. Throughout American history, “unpopular” opinions occupied themselves in the rhetorical sphere, survived and, with the help of debate and reason, achieved acceptance, new politics and changed attitudes. Respondents who do not agree to circulate unpopular opinions are likely to have opinions that their fellow citizens may find unpopular. The first amendment to the constitution was precisely formulated to allow for unusual or unpopular opinions to flow into the discussion. Otherwise, the mob of community censorship will wipe out the social debate.

Unsurprisingly, the Knight report reveals a partisan split over the perception of freedom of expression. Democrats, for example, are far more concerned than Republicans about the spread of misinformation in society. There is also partisan disagreement about how content is regulated on social media platforms and what constitutes a legitimate public protest. As can be seen, the right to freedom of expression is influenced by the lens of party affiliation.

It is difficult to see why Americans so imperfectly understand and appreciate the principle of free speech. The country’s education system needs to take on some of the responsibility, starting from elementary school through college. Inadequate education about civics, American history, and the Constitution leaves students clueless as to why the designers came up with an initial constitutional amendment and how, despite some bumps, it worked to keep the nation free all these years.

A more disheartening explanation for this national lack of commitment to freedom of expression is that a large proportion of citizens simply do not support the concept. Perhaps they fear that their views will not stand up to scrutiny in the market, so they are okay with allowing repression by the cancellation mobs or even the government. The raw power of censorship serves authoritarian impulses. This may seem attractive to some people who want to exclude other voices from the dialogue, but it only sounds good until your opinion is frowned upon.

Restricting the flow of opinion inevitably leads to a division in society such as can be seen in America today. Ultimately, oppression doesn’t work in free societies.

A first step in reducing polarization is to recognize that fellow citizens have and are allowed to express their views – and that such sometimes noisy freedom is preferable to forced adjustment of thinking.

Until Americans better understand the principle of free speech, it will be difficult to bring civil dialogue into the deliberations of the nation, and polarization will continue to prevail.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communications at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, newspaper reporter and political media advisor. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.

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