All of the activity around last month’s storming of the U.S. Capitol and last year’s civil unrest over social justice and equality had me, and perhaps everyone else, taking a step back. It made me wonder about our society in these difficult times. You see, the Capitol siege and the civil unrest from last year, both had something in common: they both were examples of a society missing basic principles of respect for human beings, and the basic principles of human decency.
In America, when there is a difference of opinion, or a debate of issues or political sides, we do not traditionally see people violently erupting out of anger, attacking people’s families, or knocking down doors and windows to win the debate. With intellectual discussion and debate, there exists a certain amount of decorum, through an academic pursuit, oft and times with spirited excitement on all sides that comes with a proper oratorical debate. But the people that stormed the Capitol were filled with rage, armed with a false truth about the election and their way of life, and they took it upon themselves to somehow “save” the country by exerting violence instead of reasonable discourse.
But there’s something missing here. Where is the decorum that follows traditional debate in America? We all know that a civilized debate does not mean acting childish. For example, the art of debate and political discourse, foundations of civilized society, would be vanquished if one debater just marches over to the next person‘s podium and slaps them in the face or draws a gun to win their side. That’s not how we do things in a civilized democracy, even in a politically charged one as it is today. There needs to be a modicum of education to show our society that a proper debate should never end up in violence. If that were the case then anyone with the bigger stick would win any debate, and that’s hardly the way a proper democracy should be run.
Besides respect and civility, the other thing missing is clearly truth. The art of debate and discourse must be grounded in truth. Unfortunately, it was false information that stirred these rioters to take it upon themselves to fix what they believed to be unjust and true action by their own government. The Capitol rioters violently demonstrated based upon false beliefs, believing them to be true, almost in a cultish manner, even though they were categorically false. So the search for truth, real truth, is also missing.
And what about when the Capitol rioters chanted “this is our house” as they broke into and stormed those hallowed halls. There’s something missing here, as well, because for any citizens to say those words in a democracy would clearly break down the halls of government instantly. We are a nation of rules and law. You don’t see people going into the library and saying “this is my library,” and then proceeding to decorate it on their own. These are public institutions that must be maintained with rules and the rule of law for everyone. By chanting “this is our house” or this is our library, but failing to honor the rules that built those institutions doesn’t make any sense. These basic ideas of a democracy need to be instilled more in our society so that individuals in America can have meaningful, respectful discourse of the prevailing issues, without resorting to violence or physical measures to win their political debate.
In all, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words on nonviolence more than 50 years ago ring even truer, and mean even more, today:
“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
Whatever it is that we deem is missing in our society, we can debate and discuss it, but we should know that violence is not the answer.