Everyone is expected to make a statement from time to time. The obvious high-level example is when there’s a natural disaster or some kind of manmade violence and we await official remarks from the President of the United States. But it extends all the way to the dinner table, where someone might ask, “Beatrice, what do you think about copper-nickel sulfide mining?”
Some would say it’s rude to bring something like that up over supper. Beatrice might choke on the green-bean casserole in panic, fearing a faction of the family could cut ties with her if she speaks her mind.
In America we like to profess that Beatrice is just as important as Donald Trump or Joe Biden, but we are also quick to acknowledge that opinions are amplified by status and reputation.
Donald Trump has a posse. Joe Biden has a posse. It doesn’t matter if Beatrice is more intelligent, more articulate or could kickbox both of their teeth in. She is just Beatrice. They are Presidents.
While many people are cautious about sharing their thoughts on contentious issues, others are steadfast in their convictions and can’t wait to shout from the rooftops while waiving flags, weapons or cardboard signs. None of it is very convincing, though. People can at least roll their eyes at cardboard signs while walking away indifferently. Weapons and fists invalidate opinions immediately. You might get temporary compliance by taking hostages, but it’s a desperate move that comes with consequences.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides powerful freedom-of-speech protection in a court of law, but it doesn’t keep people from punching you in the lips in the heat of the moment. Feelings are more likely to get hurt than teeth, but standing up for what you believe in generally involves a level of risk.
Violence, of course, is not a form of speech at all. It’s an expression of weakness and fear, which is why it takes a level of finesse to present rational ideas to autocrats and maniacs without getting assaulted. Turning violent is a natural and easy thing to do, but someone eventually has to de-escalate or everyone suffers from the destruction.
Politicians, celebrities and business leaders are all asked to make their opinions known, but any schlub who operates a personal social media account or sits down at a bar near other people is bound to cut a rant. And poor Beatrice, who just wants us all to get along, will have to say something too, even if it’s a diplomatic non-answer like “oh, I just think we should all have some common sense and respect each other.”
The President placates an angry mob the same way. “We have to have peace, so go home,” he says to the rioters while also telling them how special they are.
In moments of confidence we speak with clarity; in moments of doubt we get vague. People who accept leadership roles understand they are expected to make their convictions known, and vague simplicity is generally more important than details. “We can get things done,” for example, is better received than “here is my 600-page paper explaining how we can get things done.”
If you say “we can get things done,” and you don’t have the manual for how to do it, you’re not lying; you’re just less competent than someone with a manual. But the manual is only helpful if people read it, and they won’t read it if they don’t think we can get things done.
In times of extreme divisiveness — like, you know, all the time, really — the best move is often to keep your mouth shut. Everyone else is just itching to let you know how little you understand what you’re talking about, so why bother? Well, because you have influence, right? And because people won’t let you shut up.
If you get to spend your days never being asked to denounce someone else’s actions, consider yourself fortunate. But the teams are getting more and more clearly defined. You are either for us or against us, right?
The danger in not making a prompt statement is that someone will point out how the “silence is deafening.” In other words, what you’re not saying says a lot. If you aren’t condemning so-and-so’s actions you are condoning them. How will people know whether to vote for you, buy your products, advance your project or be your friend if you don’t spout off about how upset or pleased you are at every moment?
Political moderates like to join the extremists in complaining about the extremes — those right-wing fascists and left-wing socialists — but I wonder how they all feel about me. I’m an extreme moderate. I’m as nutty as they come.
How will I ever advance my radically centrist viewpoints in a two-party system? Some moderates think it’s time for a viable third party, but I disagree. Have you noticed when new political parties form that they are loonier than the ones they want to displace? We need to throw the party system itself in the crapper as fast as possible.
If you do join a party it can be perilous to stray from its platforms. You might be accused of something like not being a “true conservative.” But being conservative is a subjective thing to begin with, so being a “true conservative” means nothing. And frankly, I know few conservatives who show much restraint and few liberals who aren’t constantly unhinged about someone disagreeing with their narrow viewpoints, so words don’t really matter anymore.
It was widely reported this week that President Trump’s Twitter account has been “permanently suspended.” If you can explain what “permanently suspended” means, you belong in politics.
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