The pundit heads have been rolling lately, and Stephen Colbert recently found himself in another one of these regular, inevitable, and usually self-inflicted pits. Rather than joining in with the “Fire Colbert” mob, conservatives should take this as a rare opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to a culture of free speech and a more participatory, understanding, and open political dialogue.
Undoubtedly, Stephen Colbert’s opening monologue was extremely disrespectful and crude towards President Trump, and by proxy, his supporters. Furthermore, his comments have seemingly offended a wider array of Americans who detest his use of a derogatory innuendo regarding the President.
Recently Republicans have been in a furry about how we should encourage a culture of free speech and the open exchange of ideas rather than silencing people in a vicious game of “word gotcha.” Sean Hannity declared war on this on his show, calling it “media fascism.” Ann Coulter similarly, with a lot of support from the left, fought hard for the right to be able to speak at Berkley.
Colbert has responded to the backlash by defiantly saying “I would do it again,” albeit with slightly less crude language. Republicans who truly believe in what we’ve been preaching about regarding encouraging a culture of dialogue should react by criticizing his comments, but not by demanding his head to now roll as well.
Encouraging a free exchange of ideas leads to more dialogue, more political awareness, and a more participatory civil society. We have the First Amendment, but that only provides protection from government suppression of speech. A true culture of free speech is beyond the First Amendment and can only be supported by a society willing to prop it up.
Recent trends have shown that more Americans are living in echo chambers rather than reaching out and engaging one another. A big reason for this is a lack of trust of the other side, where we believe that anything we say to the other side will not be received in good faith but rather only used against us.
Many conservatives have repeated the refrain both now and in previous incidents where liberal commentators or politicians step in the mud that if the person were conservative, they would have almost certainly been fired or forced to resign. Perhaps this is true, but the consistent whining of conservatives about this does nothing to fix it.
In order to build more dialogue and less “gotcha,” of which we all would eventually find ourselves in, we need to build more trust. If we want conservatives to feel more free to talk about our ideas and vision, we need to grant the same leniency towards the left as well. Only then can we build the foundation for dialogue to take place, even if we will never agree on all the issues.
Furthermore, entertainers like Colbert are not journalists or even commentators. They are entertainers, and fulfill a unique society role in bringing political consciousness to those not involved in the professional political class. We’ve always had political entertainers throughout American history who’ve fulfilled this role, and entertainers like Stephen Colbert are carrying on this tradition for the left, although the right is slowly growing more of our counterparts as well.
Undoubtedly in the course of entertainment, offense will be had, and sometimes severe offense. The Internet has greatly magnified both the ability to detect offense and react to it, and a result we’ve become more coarse.
As a society, we should criticize yet not silence. While sometimes rhetoric does go over the line, nonetheless erring on the side of speech, even with more excesses, is better than to err on the side of less excesses but more silence, which would lead to a decline in the health of our republic.
It is also important to note Colbert’s antics are not the cause of our coarsening, but merely a symptom and response to it. If we truly want to raise the level of discourse, we should focus on our schools and communities rather than trying to silence people like Colbert.
Republicans should jump on this opportunity to defend Colbert from those on our side who seek to claim his scalp as a prize. Only by demonstrating our willingness to grant leniency to the opposing side when they commit errors as well can we build up a level of trust that may someday allow us to again live in a society that focuses on results and ideas, rather than “gotcha.”