Opinion: Disagreements can happen without vilification
Unfortunately, we do not have to look outside of our own county to see, firsthand, the problem with dangerous and irresponsible political rhetoric being advanced by elected leaders. Clackamas County Commissioner Tootie Smith has used the pulpit the voters gave her to consistently spread misinformation about COVID-19, and Commissioner Mark Shull is such a prodigious spreader of hateful speech and misinformation that he is facing a recall effort.
Many hoped that Jan. 6 would have caused elected officials at every level to rethink violent rhetoric and the demonization of political opponents, but that was not the case. Will the Jan. 13 takeover of a Clackamas County Board of Commissioners meeting by protesters echoing many of the same refrains as those two commissioners instill a sense of responsibility and drive home the point that the words of our elected officials matter? I hope so. It may be naïve to think that, in the heat of an election season, we can cool the rhetoric, but we must, on all sides, move away from extremist language and deliberate misinformation.
We must stop using that rhetoric ourselves to cast political opponents as the "others," and we must stop rewarding politicians that use such language in order to make base appeals to voters. We must also do more as a society to try and address online hate speech and misinformation while still protecting free speech and respecting differing viewpoints. Social media platforms have long been pressured to address this issue and, while they have taken some proactive steps, the problem persists. Now, Congress may inadvertently make the task even more difficult should they pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (S.2992). A bill designed to regulate big tech, the legislation requires that major platforms not discriminate among "similarly situated business users." This could prevent platforms like Facebook or YouTube from removing or downranking hate speech, conspiracy theorists or insurrectionist speech (such as Alex Jones' Infowars or Parler) because doing so would "discriminate" against their apps. I think most agree that big tech should be regulated, but I also think that most of us would be rightly concerned about tying platforms' hands against hate speech and disinformation.
I hope Congress ensures that efforts to regulate the technology industry to not allow for easier proliferation of online hate and misinformation. I hope elected officials take their role as servants of all of their constituents seriously and exercise prudence in the language they use, and I hope all of us do our part to turn down the volume and find ways to disagree politically without the need to vilify those with whom we disagree.
Ken Humberston is a former Clackamas County commissioner.
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