Democracy is adulting

Posted 7/10/19

It’s not comfortable for a community to dissect itself in a debate about something like a hangman’s knot brandished in the face of all who pass through the center of town, but it’s …

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Democracy is adulting

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It’s not comfortable for a community to dissect itself in a debate about something like a hangman’s knot brandished in the face of all who pass through the center of town, but it’s the essence of self-governance.

It was the impulse of some in Quilcene to shush the conversation, pretending the noose and its defenders and detractors did not exist.

Censors lack faith in the public and lack faith in the power of ideas. We Americans long ago reserved to ourselves many powers, most notably the power to speak bluntly to one another in public. When censors rule, bullies enjoy greater impunity.

Ben Franklin borrowed heavily from John Milton when he laid down what would become the defining law of this land: “When Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick...when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.”

An extended middle finger like the noose in the window of the Whistling Oyster building gathers all its power from silence.

Symbols hit the buttons in the reactive fear and anger parts of our brain, not the slow-moving verbal reasoning circuits. Posting an outrageous symbol without explanation, you don’t have to care about the chill you send down visitors’ spines, whose family you offend or whose nearby business you jeopardize...until the consequences roll in.

That’s what happened in Quilcene. The forgotten twin of free speech is accountability. Having your say means having your consequences, too.

Within days of the first Leader report about the noose, there were about 400 comments on our social networking page, a tiny sample of the debate underway across the county. The main camps were the disgusted, the dismissive, the deceptive and the defensive. Thousands read the comments without chiming in and likely had private arguments and discussions alongside.

Our settings automatically block the strongest curse-words, which only happened one or two times. Otherwise, we let it buck, watching a bit nervously as Molotov cocktails were predicted but not threatened, parentage questioned, personalities attacked. Red herrings (such as logger-booted Quilcene having a cattle-drive heritage) were masticated and spit out like day-old chew. Tiny trolls cued up their eight-track tapes to the same two or three worn-out phrases about liberals, conservatives or the free press.

But in the midst of all that noise was a community trying to make sense of itself.

Can we love our neighbors without loving all their decisions? What do we do with one of our own who just doesn’t get that his idea of a joke is frightful to others?

A display like that marks turf or tags outcasts and in this case conjured the wretched legacy of American lynchings: 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites between 1882 and 1968, according to the Tuskegee Institute.

The great advantage of a public airing of differences of opinion is that the person presenting the symbol loses power as the power of the people takes over.

The public made clear the meaning and held the noose’s owner accountable for it, with even his friends conceding it was objectionable. In the end, the owner of the noose apparently decided it was no longer fun or profitable to flip that particular bird at the world and took it down.

The less weighty example of the public airing of differences is the conversation we’re now having about lasers versus fireworks in the annual celebration of the Declaration of Independence Ben Franklin helped draft. Strong preferences were expressed, community members took care to praise organizers for trying something new and trolls popped in to blast liberals and the mindlessly militaristic alike for the disastrous State of our Union. But what’s clear is that we prefer pyrotechnics, much the way we prefer free speech. It’s noisy and that’s good.

-Dean Miller

The Leader’s Editorials are the opinion of the Editorial Board: Publisher Lloyd Mullen; co-owner Louis Mullen; Editor Dean Miller and Leader readers who lobby The Leader. Each editorial is signed by the person who writes that editorial on behalf of the Editorial Board.

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