Must We All Clap Loudly? Thoughts on Phil Robertson, Legalized Marijuana, Obamacare and the Dignity of Dissent.

Americans love to disagree with one another. The right of dissent is crucial to our identity as a people. We all learned with horror on December 12th that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek executed. This uncle had been a long time regime loyalist and supporter of Un’s father and had even provided valuable legitimization of Un himself during the time of his transition to power in 2012.
One of the most revealing statements was found in the list of reasons the uncle was executed. The government said that Un’s uncle had failed to show ‘sufficient enthusiasm’ in applauding when Kim Jong Un was named to a key post. In other words, he didn’t clap loudly enough. This was taken as a public act of disrespect and, therefore, he had to be silenced. There were other reasons given, but the underlying message behind the whole episode is that there is no place for dissent in N. Korea.
I don’t want to live in a society like that. I suspect that you don’t want that either. Let me illustrate the importance of this point by choosing three very different issues which would most likely elicit very different responses from readers of this blog: 1) Legalization of marijuana for non-medical purposes. 2) The Affordable Health Care (ObamaCare) requirement that insurers provide contraceptives. 3) The normalization of homosexual marriage. These are all complex, nuanced issues where Americans disagree. We can’t just sweep the dissent away with the question, “Aren’t we all really saying the same thing?” No, there really are different views about issues like the recreational use of marijuana, extending the definition of marriage to include homosexual couples, and the use of birth control to prevent conception. This is, of course, a list which could be much longer. Gun control, climate change, the use of nuclear weapons, abortion and immigration/border security come quickly to mind.
This post is not about positions on any of these issues. It is about the underlying dignity of dissent. Do we live in a country where the Little Sisters, an organization of Roman Catholic nuns who adamantly oppose contraception, should be forced to purchase health care which provides contraception? This will be decided in 2014. (My colleague, J.D. Walt, wrote a compelling post about this issue of “the dissent of the governed” some months back at It’s well worth your time to read.)
January 1, 2014 is also when the first retail stores are allowed to legally open across Colorado selling marijuana for recreational purposes. The majority of the citizens of Colorado apparently favor this since they voted to accept it. The question is, do we live in a country where a group of health care officials in Colorado can continue their vocal campaign against it, even though it is now legalized in Colorado? Alternatively, must everyone in Colorado now show “sufficient enthusiasm” or suffer the consequences?
Homosexual marriage is now being recognized across the country and before long will likely be legal in all 50 states. Do we live in a country where Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty can state publicly that he believes that homosexuality is a sin? It obscures the point if we focus only on the “coarseness” of the way he stated it. The deeper point is that after all the dust is cleared, can Phil Robertson (or anyone else) state publicly their opinion that homosexuality is a sin. Or, is this now the cause of immediate execution because of insufficient enthusiasm? Must we clap loudly at whatever the culture embraces? Is there no place for the dignity of dissent?


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