Summer Series #3: Free Speech Only Matters If We Listen

By Ryan Donahue

I’ve been a devoted student of politics and current events for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never been one for protesting. Yet, when Vice President Mike Pence visited Lexington, Kentucky a few weeks back to tout the Republican healthcare plan (if you could even call it that), my friend Leah and I decided to join the ranks of fellow concerned citizens making their voices heard outside of the event. I felt a bit out of place at first. She and I had just left work, so I was slightly overdressed for the occasion (pro tip: don’t wear a suit to a July protest, trust me on this one). We didn’t have any cleverly-worded signs, and I just couldn’t buy into the concept of chanting. But, after a while I settled in. It was nice to be surrounded by so many like-minded people.

While we came from all different walks of life, every member of the crowd was united in fervent opposition to the repeal bill (whichever iteration was being peddled at the time that is). This uniformity was interrupted only by a single counter-protester proudly waving a MAGA sign, shouting "Go get a job! Go Donald Trump!". Amusing at first, the crowd dismissed and mocked him. Then, the situation quickly turned ugly as the man began hurling various invectives full of hate and vitriol. He wantonly uttered pejorative terms that have long been rejected by polite society, and the crowd retaliated with commensurate verbal abuse. One protester shouted, “We hate you!”, just in case there was any doubt about the crowd’s feelings towards him. The multitudes of ideological compatriots began coordinating their efforts in the form of chants aimed at drowning out this man's voice. Right as the altercation seemed to be coming to a head, something remarkable happened.

Leah approached the man and began talking with him. No shouting. No insults. Just conversation. As the protesters realized their voices were no longer needed in the crusade to shut down this offensive dissenter, I was able to listen in on the discussion. She asked about his specific grievances with the current system under the ACA, and he replied by commenting on the sorry state of veterans’ healthcare. Occupying a special place in Leah’s heart, she was well equipped to discuss this issue. But first, she needed to ask if he was a veteran himself in which case she could thank him for service to the country. He wasn’t, but he still cared deeply about the health of those who have served. This is something they share.

Far from being conciliatory, however, Leah did feel the need to challenge this man on his previously rude behavior. It was at this point that I expected the short-lived civility to come crashing down in flames. I braced for impact. But instead of an acrimonious end to the newfound accord, he acknowledged his disrespectful conduct and actually apologized. I’m still reeling from the shock of what happened next: he folded up his sign, handed it over, and just walked away. Some in the crowd laughed and cheered at his departure. They saw a vanquished enemy staggering off in defeat, but I had seen something entirely different. I knew that the interaction I was just witness to was extraordinary and important and represented exactly what we all need right now. Yet, I still couldn’t quite articulate why. I recognized something in my friend’s actions that day as the remedy to much of our civil society’s ailments. I just didn’t know what that something was. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but luckily she could. The word I was looking for was compassion. I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t direct you to Leah’s recently released dance film “A Simple Act”. It will make you think more about compassion than my words ever could.

So, what does this story or the concept of compassion have to do with free speech?  When the Trump supporter first arrived, his actions were no different from those of the protesters. He was waving a sign. He was shouting chants. He was trying to be heard, and so were we. Yet, no one cared to hear the man out. No one cared who he was or what he believed or why he believed those things. No one saw him as a complex human being with hopes and fears and experiences that made him who he is. That is, of course, no one there except for Leah. She taught us all a lesson that day. Her actions prove that free speech is utterly useless without compassion. The first amendment was certainly not suspended at any point during that protest. There were no government censors quashing dissent. In every legal sense, the right to free speech was preserved. But what good did that do? The crowd dismissed him, ridiculed him, and shouted him down. He responded in-kind with obnoxious toxicity. Both sides got louder and louder, but neither party was any more heard by the other. What is the purpose of having a right to free speech if exercising it feels like arguing with a brick wall? Free speech can indeed have meaning again if we talk to one another, listen to one another, and seek to understand one another. Showing compassion for those we have grown so accustom to fighting and despising over ideological disagreements can at times be challenging. Oftentimes the favor will go unreturned. But from what I’ve seen, that moment when you achieve a degree of mutual understanding with someone makes the whole process well worthwhile.

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