"Contests naturally draw Company, and the Vulgar are justified in their Curiosity, if not Pity, when they see so many Wiser Men busie themselves to suppress a People." William Penn - 1675
Conflict and fear excite interest; in fact, these excite many more neurons in a person's brain than peaceful conversations and peaceful events do. It's only "natural", Penn thought. And he was right. Conflict is necessary for a good story (or we wouldn't waste our time watching a movie or reading a book). The news wouldn't keep our interest long if reports were all tip-toeing-through-the-tulips. (Though I wouldn't mind a day in the media of nothing but tulip sniffing.) So what is the downside to the "contests" to which William Penn referred?
Penn was saying that the use of conflict in the hands of these "wiser men" was designed to suppress opposition. The ruckus drew a crowd. He said it brought out the vulgarity of the "company," a potential mob. They were the people who may have started with curiosity but end up vulgarized by their active participation. This was what "wise men" needed to validate their acts and build support to suppress.
In Penn's society people felt threatened by differences. It was literally considered a security risk to disagree, to not conform to the party's point-of-view, never mind these dissenters were peaceful citizens. Nonetheless, suppression and violence were legitimized to bring solidarity to the nation and its leaders. The strategy involved devaluing "disagreeable" persons. It was a necessary, else suppression and coercion would be noticeably improper. I mean, how does one get away with destroying people’s lives, if they are, in fact, their loved neighbors and friends. No! They had to be "traitors, fanatics, and pigs" sent from the Pope in a secret conspiracy to destroy England. Argh!
Today, in America, our differences are hardened battle lines, just like in William Penn's day. To dissent, even from your own group, is traitorous, just like it was then. Questioning authority brings a discrediting campaign, just like it did then. We'd rather skin people alive, one personal attack after another, instead of listen, just like... you get it. No one is curious about another's point of view, and yet, everyone has harsh opinions. Otherwise good people can be turned into militant, sneering crowds, just by the mention of their "enemies's names."
Unfortunately, this current "contest" in which America and the world are engaged, isn't for story telling sake. There is no satisfying payoff to end this tale. This is real American life in which we are unashamed to betray ourselves and each other.
Somehow, it starts with the need to suppress; somehow it's "justified." Just as Penn said it would be.
We'll talk more about why next.