This afternoon a group of outsiders are coming to San Diego to attempt to disrupt the San Diego Unified School Districts board meeting as the district debates implementing a vaccine mandate for the prevention of COVID-19 among students 12 and up.
This debate isn’t controversial or out of context in the least. The district already has in place other vaccine mandates, most recently a mandate that all children have the MMR vaccine prior to entering kindergarten, a state law which stopped repeated outbreaks of measles in their tracks less than 5 years ago.
Of course, people have the right to protest and free speech. These are enshrined in our constitution. And people have freedom of movement to come to those protests from other areas.
But our society has seemed to forget that this isn’t where those freedoms end. While you can say and think what you want, you don’t get to do what you want all the time. And, if while expressing your freedom of speech and your speech is wrong… you should also be confronted for being wrong. And if you go too far in expressing your free speech by say, preventing others to that same right, intimidating or threatening people who oppose your view, or are otherwise being antisocial while you express your viewpoint, you should be held accountable for those actions as well.
Freedom of speech has constitutional limits. And freedom of speech does not equal freedom to create chaos or obstruct public meetings. As those who participated in the January 6th attack on our democracy have learned, you do have a freedom to attend a protest, but you do not have the freedom to kick down the doors to a public meeting and disrupt government without consequences.
It’s Deeper Than That
My concern for our society lies not so much with the extremist behavior but in the underlying lack of dialog in our communities which, left to fester, boil up towards extremism.
We live a society that just doesn’t talk to people face-to-face very much anymore. And we humans need that face-to-face interaction.
We find it so much easier to just huddle with people who are like us, who think like us, who like the same things that we do, and the net consequence is that there is no moderation. If I put my so-called “social media expert” hat back on for a second, this is exactly what the algorithms do in social media. The math doesn’t care about the sociological impact of doing this. All the algorithm wants is for you to spend more time on TikTok or Instagram so it keeps showing you things you like based on other things you like, which pushes you further and further into specialized buckets of content 100% customized for you. That’s why you see people doing things in public that are on TikTok and not understanding how weird they look. In their minds, “literally everyone is doing the Taco Bell challenge.”
But you do this in your community, as well.
You have 5-6 neighbors whose property touches your property. Chances are good that you know the names of 3-4 of them, maybe you even know them well enough where you hang out occasionally. Realistically you chitchat with a couple of them from time to time.
But you have a couple other neighbors whom you don’t talk to because of something that’s happened in the past. Maybe they rev their motorcycle’s engine early in the morning and you find that annoying. Or maybe they had one too many Hillary Clinton signs for just a little bit too long in 2016 and you didn’t like that. Or maybe they’ve got chickens and you don’t like hearing their noises. (That’s self-deprecating humor for those who don’t know.)
So what do you do? You ignore them. And that’s the worst possible thing you could do. When you ignore them your view of them naturally gets worse over time and whatever their viewpoint is that’s bothering you gets more pointed because it’s been unchecked.
I believe our society is drifting into extremes not because of the impact of social media but because neighbors don’t talk to neighbors.
You’ve seen the movie Monsters, Inc right?
The entire premise of the movie was that our fears generate the power which fuels the world. (Whoa, I know some of you need to think about that for a second… go back and watch it!)
And the secondary premise is that once we get to know our fears they aren’t that scary and have less power over us. (Double whoa!)
Right now, fear has all the power in our society. Fear of disease, fear of controls, fears we’re all going to go bankrupt, fears the country is going to fall apart.
But you and I can be part of making a difference in our communities by doing the one thing we might fear the most: Talking to our neighbors. Even THAT neighbor whose Harley is too loud or political beliefs are too extreme or whose chickens wake up too early.
Why is this so important? Because as you get to know one another your view of them will change, your views about people with their views will change, and their views about people like you will change.
For me, the answer isn’t chastising the anti-vaxx outsiders who seek to disrupt a public meeting tonight. The answer is finding ways to engage with them. To talk to them as humans and not as objects of scorn, to truly hear them out and find common ground.
For you, I don’t know what that means. But I do know that talking to them is part of the answer.