Over the past eight years, the value of free expression has been illustrated so starkly and the barriers to this seemingly simple act of democratic participation in the realm of ideas and values have become more varied and challenging. From the erection of "free speech zones" miles from the ears and eyes of their intended recipients to the illegality of wearing a politically charged t-shirt, Americans are becoming re-acquainted with the numerous cultural gatekeepers, people and institutions that for whatever reason, make it risky or difficult to stand up for your beliefs and values through speech.
Many of us have faced a difficult choice when we wanted to speak out against the Iraq War or the Patriot Act but experienced the chilling effect of our fellow citizens who may have had sons or daughters, fathers or aunts, serving in the military. It became worse when our troops came home for burial and now our speech could have the added acidic effect of challenging these people's familial sacrifice. So we kept our mouth's shut.
On other fronts, such as the immense threats we face from global climate change or post-peak oil, it took years for us once we became familiar with the arguments to gather the courage and muster a few words in the company of people who were not sycophants or fellow members of the choir. Think of the time lost while the climate of acceptability shifted slowly, gradually, incrementally so that we could, ever so carefully, begin to share our thoughts and concerns.
Some of us didn't really care and said whatever we felt. Sometimes those of us who were of that sort paid dearly for their speech. Others had a family, car, mortgage, job and couldn't venture so far out beyond the curve of public opinion. These people were more careful and waited...and waited, until recently when it became acceptable to speak out about climate change or against the war. So again, what do we lose, not only each of us individually but also our society collectively when we hold back our opinions and thoughts? It's up to each of of to answer the question of individual cost. But for society, it's clear that we lose an opportunity to circulate values, beliefs, ideas, and opinions into the realm of public opinion so that the collective sum of what we all believe can be accurately assessed.
Conversely, to not do so risks a dark cloaking of the sum total of these beliefs so that what we're left with is another reality. This alternative reality is picked up almost like radar by the majority of us as "what society thinks" since there is no aggressively competing message. The media, already pre-biased as a corporate appendage, readily picks up on the comfortably ensconced version of public opinion that does not challenge accepted norms and mores which are embedded in to the cultural petri medium of growth, consumption, expansion, acquisition, and profit.
So in the end, again what we have lost over the past eight years most significantly is an opportunity to more aggressively circulate our own ideas and concerns about climate change, post-peak oil, endangered species, community, food, and other issues in the public forum of ideas. I am not suggesting unduly risking your job, circle of friends, or physical well-being in a reckless explosion of charged words. What I do suggest is to be aware of opportunities that you might have to have a conversation with a friend or acquaintance that you might have avoided previously about these issues. Develop your points and arguments in a non-confrontational manner but build a logical, well constructed argument that may change his or her opinion ever so slightly. You don't have to go for the Hail Mary pass but perhaps you might. over time, just shift one or three people's perspectives enough to begin to change the climate on this one topic. The sum total of all of us doing this could approximate a Gladwellian "tipping point". On the other side, keeping silent on these critically important issues risks a "spiral of silence" that may marginalize the issue or at least never give it the public support necessary to compete with the economy or health care for primacy in American political discourse.
Finally, if you have any experiences of holding back your opinion or self censoring yourselves about issues you consider important, please consider filling out a questionnaire that I have developed to learn more about these acts. I am working on a dissertation designed to learn from people who have self-censored so that I can gather what their primary concerns over speaking out were. You can find the form here:
Christopher Ryan, AICP
ConcordCAN & The Localizer Blog