Protesters and the Press in this Presidential Campaign: Anger and Self-Mastery

Protesters and the Press in this Presidential Campaign: Anger and Self-Mastery

“Donald Trump is taking away people’s First Amendment rights!”

My son was furious. How could America be allowing this?

I was surprised by the claim, by the intensity of the response, and by the source of the fury. This particular son isn’t typically that interested in politics, nor is he especially passionate about free expression. And, of course, there was this little matter of the truthfulness of the “news” that had invoked my son’s wrath.

We carefully reviewed the evidence, discussed what power a candidate actually has and acknowledged the tension between the speech rights of an individual and the right of a group to choose to hear from someone else. We came to the conclusion that, while there is evidence that Donald Trump, his campaign and some of his supporters are not particularly tolerant of protesters, he probably hadn’t actually deprived anyone of his/her First Amendment rights.

The conversation put me in mind of Governor John Kasich’s Ohio primary victory party. Kasich was interrupted by a heckler (who, reportedly, was actually a comedian playing at being a Trump supporter)  just as he was about to start his more substantive remarks. I observed a moment of uncertainty, a flash of annoyance, and then Kasich walked across the stage, spoke with some people and gestured toward the heckler.

When he returned to the podium, he said “When you went to college in the 1970s, you appreciate a bit of good, peaceful protest every once in a while.”

His audience wasn’t quite sure how to take the comment. Some expressed annoyance, some laughed, some cheered. Then Kasich moved on.

Which reminded me of the jeers and cheers I heard listening to Donald Trump’s victory party the same night. He took several shots at the journalists in the back of the room, calling them “disgusting people, horrible people.” The audience laughed and cheered.

Which, finally, led me to think of a conversation with a newspaper reporter who had been covering a Trump rally. The reporter was challenged multiple times outside the venue by sheriff’s deputies responsible for providing security, including one who was . . . well, let’s just say that he didn’t allow for a lot of personal space and didn’t seem satisfied with much of any explanation the reporter gave. The reporter wasn’t “arrested,” but there certainly was some question of a lack of respect for the First Amendment.

Which brought me full circle to my son, to his anger, indeed his indignation, which might have been righteous except that it wasn’t right on the facts.

There’s a place for expressions of anger, even of rage. Some things are monstrously wrong. Genocide, abuse of the vulnerable, prejudice . . . if we respond to these with indignation, we may be on a path of righteousness.

There also are instances in which it is difficult for us to hold our anger back. Most of us, at certain points in our life journey, have wounds that have not healed, sensitive spots that produce shocks of pain when they are touched. Poke us there, and we may lash out, defending our vulnerability and punishing the other for exposing it, however briefly.

Such reactions are not right, but they are understandable and excusable.

Then there are those individuals who trade in anger and rage, who use their own outsized displays of these emotions, or their ability to elicit such displays from others, as the weapons by which they secure their objectives. Like the retired police officer turned community leader I once knew, they lay their gun on the table at the start of the meeting as if daring someone to challenge them. It has a stifling effect on honest discourse, let alone dissent or true opposition. Which is, of course, the intent.

It can be hard to listen to critics. It is painful to read a news story that makes one appear to be a malicious manipulator or a fool. And a handful of vocal protesters certainly can get one’s goat and spoil one’s moment.

But not listening to critics condemns us to see by the limited light of our own experience. Intimidating or silencing the press will deprive us of one national virtue that truly does make us exceptional. And there is a certain kind of victory one wins only over strenuous opposition, only when one is challenged to excel in self-mastery more than in bluster.

There’s room for everyone in the rough and tumble of politics. And none of us have the right to slam the door.