I often sit and ponder, with much concern, the direction we as a nation are heading. We are becoming a “lowest common denominator people.”

Millions of brave men and women have died, been maimed or emotionally ravaged in order to secure the ideas and institutions that have made us who we are. These ideas, once held sacred, are now willingly being torn down.

Amongst these is our freedom of speech. Key word being “freedom.” There was a time when most problems were solved through respectful discussion and debate. The ancient Greeks come to mind, the Renaissance, the framers of our U.S. Constitution.

Today one wrong word and you’re verbally abused and shunned. Your character may be assassinated and sometimes you may be physically attacked. Everyone is ready to destroy anyone or anything with a differing opinion.

Such thinking is no thinking at all. Consider the food you eat, the music you listen to or the clothes you wear. Would you want to eat only cheese sandwiches for the rest of your life? Only ever listen to Barry Manilow or wear the same pair of sweatpants for all time?

The answer to all these is an obvious “no.” Because we want to enjoy life. We want to love our new experiences. We live to discover, always looking for the newest, the best – the things that will define us.

How would you know, or experience, or define yourself if you only ever knew about one thing? How drab would life be if there were nothing to discover? Would you even bother if everyone were thinking and saying the same thing all the time?

The point here is that we only expand, we only experience and we only grow into who and what we are, collectively and individually, by being open to new things. New ideas.

Freedom in any form is a precious thing. So many in the world do not have freedom like we have freedom. Being free to say whatever we think cannot only apply to oneself and those who think like us. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “until all are free, none are free.” While this was not necessarily the context within which he spoke those words, the sentiment nevertheless rings true.

Free speech does not require your personal approval. You don’t have to like or accept what’s being said, but if your speech is free, then so must all speech be free.

Today these certain words are banned; tomorrow it may be your own words that are added to the list. Time and time again we have painted ourselves into a corner with high-minded, narrow thinking. Freedom must be paramount.

The pendulum swings both ways however. Freedom of speech does not equate to freedom from consequence. Both sides share equally in the burden of balance, reason and result. For every action there is a reaction. This needs to be understood. Mutual respect and common courtesy can go a long way.

Hearing something new does not require us to subscribe to the new thought. There is no obligation in listening, but there is opportunity. Opportunity to see from a new perspective, perhaps adding some wonderful new epiphany to our worldview. Something foreign spoken may open up an entirely new way of seeing and thinking, it is often called enlightenment.

Refusing to hear anything but your own ideas and opinions is a dangerous and slippery slope. When you are surrounded with only like-minded people with like-minded thoughts, your views and perspective begin to narrow. Everything else is seen as an intrusion or an affront, narrowing your ideological gang-plank even further.

This is how cults get started. This is how hatred is bred and this is how a people lose their humanity.

We only learn and grow when we are willing to listen and consider a differing view. We are rapidly losing who we are as a nation. This tunnel vision mentality and mutual disrespect are toxic.

Abraham Lincoln once said that a nation divided against itself cannot stand. History has proven such.

Again, King said, “We live together as rational human beings or die together as fools.” Let us not go gently into that dark night on a ship of fools.

Jim Ervin is a correspondent for the Highlands News-Sun and Highlands Sun. Guest columns are the opinion of the writer, not necessarily that of the Highlands News-Sun.

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