In the summer of 1977, I had a crush on Phil Donahue.
Sure, he was old. He might as well have been a dinosaur to my seven-year-old eyes. But he also seemed intelligent, thoughtful and kind.
We didn’t have VCRs or TIVO back then. Since his TV show, Donahue aired during weekday mornings, I could only catch it during summers or sick days. That was okay because my crush wasn’t an obsession as much as an admiration.
Donahue was one of the first talk shows on TV that featured the audience as much as the guest and host. Regular people were permitted to make spontaneous observations and ask questions. With microphone in hand, Donahue would sprint from one side of the studio to the other.
His show was similar to a website, except no one flamed the host or guest. After all, everyone was on national TV. No one wanted to appear uncivilized.
Although his viewpoints were never a secret, the host gave his guests time to speak. He reasoned with people. Rather than hiding ideas, Donahue shined a light on them. One day, he might’ve had Holocaust deniers and the next day a controversial author. He treated everyone equally.
From watching his show, I learned ideas were important, even if others found those same thoughts repugnant. I also discovered it was vital to be informed about dissenting opinions, especially when you live in a democracy.
It was common to hear people say, “Well, don’t agree with what you are saying, but I will fight for your right to say it.” On TV, I heard people say it to bigots and Klansmen, chauvinists and homophobes. Rather than fighting fire with fire, people drowned intolerance with tolerance. After watching those conversations, I knew which side was morally right.
Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, two companies founded on religious principles, balked at having to cover contraception as part of their health care plans. The Affordable Care Act would require them to include all forms of birth control, which goes against their company values. Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. is being fought this week in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Obama Administration says corporations have no claim of religious expression. The founders of more than 50 companies are suing to omit some forms of birth control say their right of religious expression is being denied.
It would be great if all companies covered birth control, including the Morning After Pill. After all, some forms of birth control aren’t just for sex. The pill is used to treat polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis, among other medical conditions. If companies cover a vasectomy, it should also cover women’s reproductive health solutions.
On the other hand, the idea of confronting religious beliefs through legislation is a losing battle. You can force these companies to pay for birth control. But if you succeed, have you won a moral victory? Have you changed their minds?
Or are you trying to change the behavior instead of the belief? It’s true that force can change behaviors. But unless you plan on outlawing religion, you won’t be able to change beliefs. In the end, all you will do is create martyrs. History is filled with them.
This debate is just one example of a larger question: Exactly how much dissent should we allow in our democracy?
It makes me uneasy to see my Twitter feed filled with artists and writers who want to shut down dissent. Rather than using their talents to engage ideas, they shun and punish those with opposing viewpoints.
All it requires is the power to shift slightly and those same tactics could easily be used against them.
Today, I live in a small Alabama town, surrounded by people who don’t think the same way I do. Last year’s county fair parade featured a grandiose Republican float. The Democrats had nothing in the parade. In fact, the Democrats may not even survive in this state.
I’m also married to a man whose political beliefs are quite different from mine. However, any marriage counselor will tell you the cornerstones of any successful partnership are mutual respect and kindness.
He knows not to bring up Planned Parenthood. I know not to bring up abortion. Occasionally, people ask me how I can marry someone with such different ideas.
It’s easy. I got that from watching Phil Donahue. He didn’t preach tolerance; he demonstrated it.