Upon leaving the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin told his fellow citizens that it had produced “a Republic, if you can keep it.” His answer contained a warning that still resonates. The continued success of America’s journey depends on our ability to settle our domestic political disagreements through dialogue rather than force.
But recent trends are dismaying. “Cancel culture” has moved through the professions with blinding speed. Elite arbiters of opinion have sought to throw doctors, software engineers, comedians, artists and first responders overboard for dissenting from political orthodoxy on matters surrounding sex, marriage and transgender ideology.
More recently, pro-abortion advocates threatened any Supreme Court justice who wouldn’t accomplish their will. Even before the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, there was an assassination attempt, the targeting of children and vandalism. Abortion protesters have broken windows at crisis pregnancy centers and even set fire to churches. Leading pro-abortion organizations and many Democratic politicians have failed to condemn both the threats and the actions.
Polling shows that a large majority of Americans believe that free speech is endangered by “cancel culture.” Even The New York Times reports that 84% percent of Americans either think we have a “somewhat serious” or “very serious” problem telling others the truth about what we believe. Despite the danger that cancel culture poses to our political discourse and the functioning of society, few in power are doing anything to stop it.
Like our elected officials, leaders in academia are giving free rein to the “cancelers.” For example, Yale Law School administrators failed to swiftly and firmly disapprove of the actions of students—future lawyers, jurists, lawmakers and CEOs—who chose to bang on walls and engage in name-calling and physical intimidation rather than engage with ideas they dislike.
The Yale students and the pro-abortion extremists have persuaded no one to change their views. Instead, they have revealed a misplaced confidence in their own infallibility and an eagerness to vilify and silence those who disagree. All of us share responsibility for stopping cancel culture. In light of how elites are failing to protect free speech, regular citizens may be the nation’s last hope.
In a conversation with friends who hold diverse political viewpoints, I related the experience of being “canceled” by a friend last summer. She and I have not spoken since our dinner discussion turned into a debate that became a cold war. As I thanked them for being open to dialogue, I searched for words to describe the opposite of “cancel culture.” Then, it occurred to me that listening to someone with a different perspective fosters “a culture of honesty.”
A June 2021 study from the American Enterprise Institute found that 15% of Americans have ended a friendship over politics. This number can’t be blamed on elites. This figure reflects the unwillingness of friends, family and neighbors to listen to and seek to persuade those who disagree with them.
Another poll showed that between 2016 and 2020, the percentage of Democrats who said they are not friends with anyone who holds very different political views from them rose by 14 points (12% to 26%). Independents showed an 8-point increase (12% to 20%), and Republicans showed a 2-point increase (10% to 12%). Altogether, these totals mean that a majority of Americans are not friends with anyone who doesn’t share their political views.
The big question is whether the 84% who are against cancel culture will stay silent or put a stop to the canceling.
Instead of canceling one another or advocating that free speech is violence, we can choose to listen to each other. Scholar Daniel A. Cox, who oversaw AEI’s study, says that there’s a lot to be gained by maintaining friendships across the political divide. Americans with such ties are “less likely to have extreme attitudes and develop stereotypes of the other side.” In addition to that, listening to honest disagreements might show us where we’ve misjudged and need to make a course correction.
Recognizing that every American has the capacity for reason and the obligation to live according to his or her conscience could go a long way toward building a culture of honesty. Listening to disagreement requires humility, and persuasion takes patience. But both produce genuine dialogue and foster integrity, the best hope for a well-functioning society that honors and rewards decency.
Reaching out to have conversations with neighbors, friends and family members who disagree with us will require courage. But seeing each person as more than the sum of their political opinions with important gifts to contribute might just allow us to keep our republic.
This piece originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee