From the first moment I heard the phrase, I fell in love with it: “Although I might disagree with what you say, I will fight to the death your right to say it.”
I have used it frequently in columns and editorials. In a society that is founded on the free expression of ideas, there is no phrase more important to keeping the flow of information fluid.
Break it down.
“Although I might disagree with what you say ...”
Wow, how appropriate for these days and times. Try to name one thing — just one — that would galvanize our country today? Go ahead, I have plenty of time ...
No matter what it is, there is no common ground. One side says the grass is green and the other will call B.S. A terrorist attacks America? Probably happened because of our imperialistic foreign policy. Redesigning the White House Rose Garden? That is equal to trying to kill American history.
In an ultra-political world where everything is broken into two groups — Republican and Democrat, Black and White — coming to agreement on anything is tantamount to treason.
We can chalk that up to a never-ending carousel of election cycles. As soon as an election is over, months before the new administration takes office, there is talk about the next election. And with a federal government as divided as the people within our borders, agreeing with anything the other side says is untenable.
In the first part of my favorite phrase, we should consider taking out the “might” — although I disagree with what you say.
The second half, “I will fight to the death your right to say it.”
And that is where the wise words come crumbling to the ground.
Two small-business owners with whom I am very friendly are fierce critics of the president and are not shy about expressing those views.
“I don’t agree with any of it,” I told my wife. “But, hey, this is America. If they want to say it, God bless ‘em.” And I mean it. One-hundred percent. They should have the ability and the freedom to express whatever views they want. There is no question about it.
But then I imagined walking into their business wearing a red and white “Make America Great Again” hat or expressing my belief that the president has been getting beaten over the head since before he took office. He is misunderstood because of an irrational view of what his actions are.
He has been called a traitor and accused of being a Russian agent. Save a few news outlets, there has not been one thing positive he has done that has been reported. Sure, he doesn’t do things like “normal politicians” do, but that is why more than 60 million people voted for him. They were sick of the Washington Swamp and wanted a change. His tweets at times sicken me, but so do those of the likes of CNN anchors and Nancy Pelosi, who referred to all Trump supporters as “enemies of the state.”
What do I say to that? “Nancy, you are an idiot. But I never would try to restrict your ability to express those views. Have at it, tell us what you think. We can handle it.”
But can we?
So I go back to those two small-business owners and wonder if I expressed the views in the previous paragraphs while wearing a Make America Great Again hat, would there be any chance on Earth that I would be afforded the same respect for my views as I have for theirs?
I imagine I would have two fewer small-business-owner friends.
The street of free expression does not run both ways anymore, at least not in national politics. Support Trump and risk getting a brick through your car window, beaten up, shot or canceled socially and professionally.
While cities burn, with anarchists and rioters aiming for who the hell knows what now, remember that the damage being done to those cities will be nothing compared to the damage being done to the expression of ideas — no matter how unpopular those views may seem.
Buildings can be rebuilt, but once the free expression of ideas is curtailed by the loudest mobs, society — free society — ceases to exist. One cannot walk through the streets of China or Iran and express disagreements with the state. Unpopular ideas that go against the overreaching arm of a totalitarian government are punished severely. Is that a better option than the freedom to express our ideas and opinions here?
Like millions of others, I keep quiet about national politics. The risk isn’t worth it anymore. The damage socially and professionally is too steep a price to pay. I am not alone in that feeling, which is why I am predicting a second term for President Trump. Those who are forced into silence can still have their voices heard at the ballot box — and they will.
I weep at my favorite phrase now. It is not true. Oh, we have the “First Amendment” protection, but that does not extend to the mob.
Instead, that beautiful phrase that has sustained the free expression of ideas in both directions, no matter how unpopular, has been neutered and, sadly, changed forever.
“Although I might disagree with what you say, I will fight to the death for your right to say it — as long as you agree with ‘our side.’”
Pardon me, I need to find the tissues.
Sean Murphy is managing editor of the Leader-Call. Email him at email@example.com.