A vibrant democracy to defend our liberties requires vigorous popular involvement in politics, but that involvement must draw the line not only at physical violence but also, equally important, at verbal violence. Threats of aggression–against groups or countries–simply open the door to actual aggression.
The late 19th century was by all rights a time of great hope given relative peace combined (not coincidentally) with marked advances in science as well as average living standards in the richer societies and governance (most notably, the elimination of slavery) of the richer states. Yet these advantages were undermined by their very own dark side: the warping of advances in scientific thought (specifically, on evolution) into a fake-science conservative justification for that particular form of rape and pillage known as “colonialism,” nothing new but now “scientifically” justified. This moral contradiction between advancing knowledge and the misuse of this knowledge to export the barbarism now finally considered no longer acceptable at home laid the foundations for the catastrophe of the twin world wars to follow in the next century. The global 20th Century scourge—roughly bracketed by what we incorrectly think of as “two” world wars plus the Cold War—was the titanic struggle between the revolutionary concept of popular self-government (democratic forms plus civil liberties) and the resurgence of old autocracy in a particularly vicious new form that, depending on the state might be termed communism or fascism but which essentially amounted to claiming the moral right to govern through violence. It was precisely the morally contradictory insistence among the “most advanced” societies that–despite their rising attention to the rights of the common white men, then all common men, and finally even all common women at home—that these societies retained some right to commit arbitrary violence for profit against people abroad that led the small corner of the world that was slowly turning toward domestic freedom into this great scourge that swamped the 20th century. Someone once made a remark about “half slave and half free” that fell on deaf ears.
Democracy (a form of government), or, more broadly, freedom (the goal) rests upon a certain moral perspective. Democratic forms were enshrined in law in the Soviet Union and are today in Venezuela and Turkey. Lacking a moral underpinning based on a shared perspective that political activity must exclude violence, democratic rules fail to produce freedom.
This lesson, purchased at such terrible cost in the 20th century, is today being forgotten again, across the globe, with the result that a new version of the same old threat by those who prefer compulsion to compromise, barbarism to mutual respect (or at least, mutual tolerance). Black shirt thuggery, politicization of the judiciary, political trickery to rewrite a constitution, terrorist attacks on olive groves, extra-judicial police violence against portions of the population using “drugs” or “alien status” as the excuse, and military occupations of domestic cities holding large minority populations might still shock Americans and West Europeans, but many of the less obvious examples of political extremism are coming to be tolerated by those who know better, and not just in places like Weimar Germany, Russia, Venezuela, Israel, the Philippines, and Turkey.
Thus, the pattern repeats: 1) a vicious war to establish a moral principle; 2) the moral principle is not fully implemented; 3) a generation or a century later, the same war must be fought again. The world now stands on the edge of the moral cliff: if most of us now have learned and most of our regimes have now accepted (most of the time) that nonjudicial violence is unacceptable and so counter-productive that it is not even useful from the long-term perspective of society, we nonetheless seem to have missed the other element that simply cannot be omitted from the moral structure required for the preservation of freedom. Removing physical violence from a democratic society is not enough; one must also remove verbal violence.
Sneering, threatening, insulting–in a phrase, “verbal violence” opens the door to physical violence by dividing society into groups of winners and losers such that your status as a “loser” no longer depends on your personal attitude and effort but on your race, religion, or birthplace. Such a situation is intuitively unfair because it puts the “loser” in a hopeless position: lose forever…or respond with violence, thus burning down the house we all live in.
From this, does it not follow that verbal abuse—loud threats of nuclear aggression, sarcastic racial slurs—constitute, over the long term, attacks on our way of life fully as serious as actual actions?
P.S. Literally minutes after writing this essay, I noted on the news that there is an official state of emergency in Virginia, illustrating the absence of borders between verbal violence and physical violence. A state of emergency indeed does exist – but not just in Virginia; the state of emergency exists throughout the whole of the United States, and those responsible should stand trial.