At The Wall Street Journal, Bob Greene writes about Norman Rockwell's famous "Freedom of Speech" painting.
If you’ve ever seen the painting, you know what I mean. The setting is a town meeting. One man, in work clothes, has risen from the audience to speak. There is nervousness, and courage, in his eyes; Rockwell makes it evident that the man is likely not accustomed to talking in public. Other citizens of the town, the men in coats and ties, are in the seats around him. Their eyes are focused upward, toward him. They are hearing him out; they are patiently letting him have his say.
His eyes, their eyes…that is the power of the painting. We, of course, have no idea what is on the man’s mind, or whether the other townspeople agree with him or adamantly oppose him. But as he talks they are listening, giving him a chance. They know that their own turn, if they want it, will come. For now, they owe him their full and polite attention.
You contemplate the tableau in “Freedom of Speech,” and the meaning of those eyes hits you. Rockwell understood: Only when we look each other in the eye can we begin to solve our problems. It is easy to eviscerate someone whose eyes yours have never met; it is easy to harangue someone, to make him feel insignificant, if you don’t have to see him. When Rockwell was distilling America’s aspirations into his Four Freedoms paintings, there was no internet, there were no social media, television sets had not yet taken over the country’s homes. He took it on faith that when men and women rose to speak, they would of necessity greet each others’ gazes.
On the Senate floor, Marco Rubio said last week:
Turn on the news and watch these parliaments around the world where people throw chairs at each other, and punches, and ask yourself how does that make you feel about those countries? It doesn't give you a lot of confidence about those countries. Now I’m not arguing that we're anywhere near that here tonight, but we're flirting with it. We're flirting with it in this body and we are flirting with it in this country. We have become a society incapable of having debates anymore.
In this country, if you watch the big policy debates that are going on in America, no one ever stops to say, “I think you're wrong, I understand your point of view - I get it. You have some valid points, but let me tell you why I think my view is better.” I don't hear that anymore. Here’s what I hear, almost automatically, and let me be fair, from both sides of these debates. Immediately, immediately, as soon as you offer an idea, the other side jumps and says, “The reason why you say that is because you say you don't care about poor people, because you only care about rich people, because you're this, or you’re that or you’re the other.” And I'm just telling you guys, we are reaching a point in this Republic where we're not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues because everyone is putting themselves in a corner where everyone hates everybody.