The enthusiasm of the 2.6 million women and men who participated in Women’s Marches on January 21st is clear, but there have also been reactions—especially on social media—expressing disdain for the “hyperventilating” women who worry that civil and human rights are under threat. Some of the responses are by men who demand evidence that women are discriminated against. They insist that women enjoy the same rights as men, and then some. Other comments are from women who say they don’t need to march, and they resent the “whining liberals” who should shut their mouths (regarding Trump) or their legs (regarding Planned Parenthood). Even more neutral observers are skeptical that such a diverse and unfocused effort could produce lasting, tangible results.
These critics miss the point. Regardless of the issues they championed, the main reason people marched was that they wanted to amplify their voices at a time when they don’t feel heard. They wanted to remind themselves, the President, and the world that America is, was, and will continue to be great only because it puts one principal above all others: freedom. Critics have a right to object. They, too, have the freedom to express themselves. But however they feel about the March, if they aren’t affirming the protesters’ right to speak their minds, they are undermining the fundamental strength of this country.
As Voltaire famously didn’t write (it was Evelyn Hall), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Those who insist on silence from the people they disagree with are playing a dangerous game. I’m from a country—Myanmar—where people very quickly lost their right to free speech and rule of law. In the 1940s and 50s, following independence from Great Britain, Myanmar (then Burma) was one of the most highly literate countries in Asia. Now it has a mean 4.1 years of schooling per person. My grandfather, Edward Law-Yone, who started the leading English-language daily newspaper there, went overnight from writing blustery columns challenging the country’s leaders to scrawling notes home to his family from a prison cell—notes which were often illegible from the censor’s black ink.
It’s hard to tolerate opinions you don’t agree with. Ten years ago, when I told my friends in Los Angeles that I was moving to St. Louis, many of them were surprised that I’d opt to live in such a conservative state. They tried to be supportive, but the underlying message was that I should buckle up for a bumpy night. It turns out St. Louis has a mix of liberal and conservative, as every place does if you look closely. After marching on Saturday, I ran into a Republican friend who very graciously asked me how it went. He doesn’t vote like I do, but over the years we’ve developed a mutual respect, and I genuinely value his opinion. But that’s what I love about being here: the ability to become friends with people I don’t agree with. You can do that in St. Louis. You can do that anywhere, actually. Anywhere in America, that is.
It’s not necessary to move to another city to rub elbows with people who are different from you. If social media can increase the tendency to self-select and limit diversity of opinion, it can also serve as a useful tool to access a wide range of viewpoints. If used to engage rather than silence, it can help, not hurt, the odds that this country will continue to be great. So the next time you see a comment that irritates you with its wrongheaded assumptions about the world, don’t block future posts from that person. And instead of commenting that he or she should crawl back into a hole and die, begin your counter-argument: “I disapprove of what you say, but I defend your right to say it.”