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Free speech is useless when no one’s listening

We celebrated another glorious Independence Day in America last week. On the surface, things seemed exactly the same as every other year. We partook in the usual holiday customs, then went to bed, got up several hours later and went back to the business of pumping up our gross domestic product, one shift and one transaction at a time.

On the same day each year, we celebrate the hard-fought freedom that was bestowed upon us over 200 years ago. We’re thankful for the wisdom and foresight of our founding fathers in ensuring that the protection of our individual liberties would remain paramount as they set out to secure our independence from the British Empire.

We are likewise thankful for the patriots who have fought for our flag – risking life and limb to protect our safety, our stature and our independence, and sometimes paying the ultimate price to protect our freedom. Our military breathes life into the documents that secure our fundamental rights – without our enforcers, they’re nothing more than ink and paper.

But while we were staring up at the fireworks last week, perhaps it should have struck us all that life in America is nothing like it used to be – at least in one respect. Some now believe that at least one of these fundamental rights – free speech – is under attack by a hostile president intent on building an authoritarian regime. As the theory goes, abolishing a kissing cousin of free speech under the First Amendment – free press – is likewise implicated in President Trump’s master plan.

But whether all this talk about Trump’s plans is true is a less important question than the following one: If free speech is so important to us, why are we stripping it from one another? America is nothing like it used to be in this one, pivotal respect: We don’t listen to each other anymore.

The situation we’re facing is much more serious than a “come on guys, can’t we all just get along?” moment. This is about a much deeper problem. This is about the outright obliteration of civil discourse in America.

Marriages and friendships are collapsing over political disagreements. We’ve always been emotional about politics, but now we’re tearing each other’s heads off. When was the last time you heard someone say the following words: “That’s a good point; I hadn’t thought of that.”

Still trying to remember? It’s a shame. Spirited debates used to serve as opportunities to learn. Now they promptly digress into insult wars. Many of us tend to believe we’re always right, and that anyone who feels differently on any given topic is flat-out wrong. And stupid. And uninformed. And a political enemy. And undeserving of basic respect. While this is predictably a major issue on online message boards, where it is easy to be confrontational, the vitriol is spilling over into our homes, our places of work, and the public venues we frequent.

America is changing. It’s happening fast, and it’s not for the better. We still have free speech, but no one is listening. Our president is not to blame. Bitter partisanship just may be the culprit.

We all have a few core issues we are passionate about. We view our chosen party as the gateway to, or protector of these objectives and ideals, and the opposing party as the sworn enemy of the same. The constant fighting and gridlock in both our statehouses and the halls of Congress only perpetuates this. When people oppose even one of our views, we are all too quick to lump them in with the enemy. And since the enemy poses an imminent threat to our world the way we see it, we act reflexively. We attack, rather than engage.

Free speech was designed to make our country better, but what good does it do when no one’s listening?

Blake Shuart is a Wichita attorney.

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