Heated political speech is an American pastime. Consider the abusive personal attack of Senator John Randolph upon then Speaker of the House Henry Clay’s aging mother for having birthed, “[a] being, so brilliant yet so corrupt, which, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, shines and stinks.” This colorful observation had little to do with substantive politics. A duel, some might say, rightfully ensued.
In reading City Attorney Jim Messer’s comments (Independent News, “Right to Speak,” Feb. 16), I can certainly appreciate his fair observation that vitriolic comments made in political settings might otherwise warrant a punch in the nose on the street. Thus, it is a fair question to ask whether and to what degree the public should be able to participate in meetings of government.
At the outset, we might do well to remember that our nation’s political system is one that was born out of open and sometimes violent discourse. But the more subtle and operative reality is that people want to be heard by governance, especially when they are hurting and afraid. Even the wise King Solomon accepted petitions directly from his subjects. And for those who pray, petition can be made directly to the Divine. We don’t always petition gracefully.
There exists a perceived disconnect between government and citizenry. Many feel that leadership is out of touch. Some of the best advice I have been given on the subject of interpersonal conflict is the need to listen mindfully and focus upon feelings, not just the facts (as a lawyer, this is counterintuitive). Quite often, feelings are more important to their owners than facts. And although feelings are not fact, open discourse, honesty, and accountability have a proven track record when it comes to meaningfully resolving differences.
The Occupy Movement illustrates the nebulous angst of many Americans. Self-described Occupiers can rarely articulate positions on complex socio-economic issues other than to observe that society lacks in equity. Ultimately, we are all members of a community with vested interests in pulling and prodding each other upward.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth.” In fairness, this may in some instances beg the question: What are you doing to pull your weight in the community?
We might strive in our efforts, personally and politically, to embrace tolerance and patience with those who are not well trained in articulating their frustrations. Social growth and discourse are rarely pretty. Thus, whether and to what degree the courts have permitted public comment in the political process may miss the greater point. The opportunity for growth is ripe and what better high road to take than fostering a government that is willing to listen to the people—even erring on the side of absorbing a few rants.
For the intractable pragmatist, history has taught us that when the public is discouraged from verbal “political” speech, they often resort out of frustration to more destructive mediums.
Ryan M. Barnett is a shareholder at Whibbs & Stone, PA, and author of the forthcoming book, “Principle Centered Practice.”