By Shereen Siewert, Wausau Pilot & Review Publisher

Editor’s note: This column has been edited to clafiry the source of several statements and add additional context.

Free speech is a cornerstone of our national identity, a Constitutional right that plays a vital role in promoting and maintaining democracy. As Americans, this is the fabric of our being. Taking away our right to be heard would be unthinkable, as I was reminded recently when reading an American Bar Association brief on the topic.

But one point of regular debate, as the ABA points out, is whether there is a free speech breaking point, a line at which hateful or harmful or speech is no longer constitutionally protected under the First Amendment.

The controversy over what many call “hate speech” is not new, but it is renewed as our nation experiences one of the most tumultuous times in our history.

Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director who is now secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, issued a statement in May that captured the essence of today’s troubling times. In essence, Bunch noted, we are not only grappling with a pandemic that continues to upend our lives in ways we could never have imagined. Now, we are confronting the reality that we are a nation that is still sharply divided across racial lines, one with significant inequities that have not, despite the gains of the past few decades, been erased.

“The state of our democracy feels fragile and precarious,” he said.

Nowhere is the precariousness of our democracy more apparent than scrolling through social media feeds. Online hate takes many forms, but the result is often the same: little things like name-calling escalate to bigger and worse. I see it every day.

You know what I’m talking about. The snarky memes. The sassy comments. The loud, proud voices that scream, but don’t listen.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right to all Americans. It’s terrific that we can exercise that right without fear of retribution.

But when did we stop listening? When did we become so focused on being “right” that we stopped hearing the voices of those around us?

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a prominent Republican, said in a 2016 interview that white Americans “don’t understand being black in America.”

This, Gingrich said, took him a long time to understand.

“If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk,” Gingrich said.

Maybe Gingrich has a point. Maybe we don’t understand. And maybe it’s because we’re so busy shouting at one another that we’ve forgotten how to listen.

Our personal political identities are all unique, with views shaped by a range of variables. Our gender, race, overall economic status, upbringing, education, overall political knowledge – these factors all play a role, to some extent, in what we believe is right.

But democracy provides people with the opportunity to be active citizens rather than passive subjects. We can and should challenge ourselves. We should question what we think we know.

And maybe we should ask ourselves if we’re getting angry about the right things. It’s perfectly understandable to be angry about things that directly affect us. But being angry about – say – a company’s decision to shed a stereotypical image on a pancake mix because they believe it’s in their best interest – has zero impact on you as an individual. Your pancakes are going to taste the same.

Like I do, I imagine that each one of you has trusted friends who have widely diverging beliefs and political alliances that vary from your own. That’s healthy. Debate is healthy, too. Part of the debate process, though, is understanding opposing views and appreciating where they come from, even if you don’t agree.

Freedom of speech, Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo declared more than 80 years ago, “is the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” Freedom of speech allows us to have healthy discourse on even the matters that divide us so deeply.

But we lose all credibility when we allow the debate to devolve into a hate-filled spectacle.

It’s long past time that we find it within ourselves to dig a little deeper and listen with respect to the views we don’t agree with.

It’s time we stop reacting with hatred and vitriol to the things we don’t understand.

It’s time we recognize that we cannot possibly know how others truly feel unless we have walked a mile in their shoes.

It’s time we stop spewing self-righteous indignation at the things that do not affect us personally in any way, shape or form.

It’s time we stop screaming and start listening.

Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review gladly publishes commentary from readers, residents and candidates for local offices. The views of readers and columnists are independent of this newspaper and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wausau Pilot & Review. To submit, email or mail to 500 N. Third St., Suite 208-8, Wausau, Wis. 54403.