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American History in the Making

Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport: The right and responsibility of voice

The Washington Post offered Kathleen Parker’s thoughts on the emerging polarity and increased risk of violence evident in many of the right-ist leaning groups in America. (The article may be found online: Whether the right is more dangerous than the left, the point is valid: speech and voice are important – they are life-sustaining and absolutely essential to democracy – but they must be exercised with a certain measure of respect, restraint, and responsibility.

Vocal theologian and activist speaker, Professor Cornel West places this as one of three pillars to democracy. In his book Democracy Matters (, he exhorts the reader to consider that there are three “crucial traditions” in democracy: the Greek creation of Socractic questioning and open dialogue/discourse (parrhesia), prophetic justice, and tragicomic hope (p. 16). Ms. Parker echoes the obligation of parrhesia and reminds us that the failure, prevented or restricted by the threat of extremism or violence, to allow open and unrestricted questioning and discourse is fuels a dangerously polar political environment. Cordial discourse is essential to the democratic process.

One of the most significant influences in my life, one greatly responsible for my sixteen years of my professional public service is South Carolina’s amazing YMCA program, “Youth-in-Government.” ( During one of the years when I either participated or volunteered there was a bumper sticker espousing the motto, “Democracy is not a Spectator Sport.” Truer words were not written.

Democracy requires action. Action requires respect, restraint, and responsibility.

I believe Ms. Parker is largely right, but she gives dangerous instruction near the end of her article, “The only palatable answer is what conservatives say they love best: self-control and personal responsibility. When someone spews obscenities, shout them down. When politicians and pundits use inflammatory language, condemn them.” Shouting down and condemning opponents incurs more anger and emotion and less thought, listening, learning, or logic. She is right in her direction, conservatives and liberals and moderates and fundamentalists and all participants must exercise self-control and personal responsibility. As listeners we must hear the other side. As speakers we must be fully informed and dispassionate.

Above all, we must act responsibly. But we must act. On this, Ms. Parker and I agree, “When you choose to remain silent, consider yourself complicit in whatever transpires.”



April 18, 2010 Posted by | 20th Century American Democracy | 1 Comment