The Open Forum: The Place for Free Discussion and Tolerance in American Progress, January 31, 1920

The Open Forum
The Place of Free Discussion and Tolerance in American Progress
By Lyman J. Gage

IN San Diego we have instituted an open forum. At a time when there is a grave tendency toward clogging the sources of public opinion, we have gone out of our way to invite that free interplay of mind with mind from which spring the deliberate processes of a democracy. We have inscribed the purposes of our forum in these words:

The Open Forum is not a propaganda for any body of ideas or theories, political, social, or economic.

Its purpose is to provide a field wherein the representatives of various doctrines or opinions may have opportunity to present their ideas to a tolerant and respectful hearing.

It is hoped that, by a better understanding of ideas and motives and by a clearer conception of varying points of view, we may reach a sense of mutuality and good will, thus enabling truth to overcome prejudice, and that we may thus aid society, in our limited way, to move forward along the evolutionary path which may lie before it with the least of hostility and bitterness.

This description of our function has been adopted unanimously by the men and women, drawn from various walks of life, who make up the board of the San Diego forum; and as it fell to my pen to draft this common platform, some interest has been expressed in the conviction of a long life, much of it spent in the business world and in public service, upon which I ground my belief in the principles of tolerance and free discussion.

I believe in mutual efforts, such as our forum, to organize opportunities to give free play to these principles, because they enable those who practice patience and tolerance to understand the attitude of other men, and put those others in position, however extreme their ideas may be, to listen with equal patience and tolerance to contrary opinion.

I can only base the justification for my belief upon personal experience -- dating back to a time, not unlike the present, when there was much tension and trepidation, and when I had the opportunity to observe the effects of that repressive intemperance which separates men by closed walls of mistrust and misconception; and then to observe the healthy gains in understanding and mutual respect which came of creating a means of contact.

About thirty years ago, a year or two after the Haymarket riots, I was somewhat influential in the formation in Chicago of what was called the Economic Club. It consisted of twenty-four members. Eight of them were what were called radicals. There was a typical representative of the Socialist group, and also there was a philosophical anarchist -- a man who was opposed to violence, but believed in the philosophical conceptions of anarchy as the ultimate goal for society. There was a representative of Henry George’s propaganda of the single tax; one or two representatives of trade unionism -- in all, a group of eight. There were eight professional men -- lawyers and ministers; and a third group of eight laymen from business life. The idea was to meet informally and talk as man to man, in the forthright and decent presentation of the points of view we variously held.

This little group met once a month -- generally at my house -- with great profit to all in attendance, including myself. The radical element, so called, was always fully represented. The professional groups were very slack and lacked interest. Among the eight so called business men, the interest was slack and the attendance lamentably irregular. Nevertheless, out of these conferences grew a series of public meetings of considerable educational significance. These were held in a public hall, seating seven or eight hundred people, on Sunday nights for eight consecutive weeks through a period of three years. These public meetings were presided over by the chairman of our club, a moderator, so called. The program on any evening included an address by a competent representative of some one of the various shades of social and political philosophy. The speaker was given an hour and then the meeting was thrown open for questions. Anybody could ask a question, but our practice was that the question must be calculated to bring out more clearly the thought of the speaker. Under guise of a question, argument could not be entered upon, and to this end, the question could not exceed a minute and a half in length.

I am sorry to say these meetings were attended but feebly by the well-to-do people of Chicago. It is hard to use a term to describe those I have in mind -- the higher classes is not the term to employ, self-satisfied is nearer. The meetings were always well attended, but they were composed mostly of those members of society who felt themselves out of joint and unrelated to the whole. Yet they would have been very educational to those who stayed aloof, as they were to those who came. I myself learned more in that period of twenty-four evenings than I had ever learned before as to political and social economy.

One indication of the need for such an institution was the very misapprehension with which the project was greeted in not a few quarters. So far had the separatist tendencies gone in that day in Chicago, that the mere act of getting together to exchange views was regarded by some with suspicion; and, as a leader in the undertaking, a share of this fell to me. I was at the time an officer in a bank and a large bank, too. There were those who thought I was pandering to what they called the lower elements; had some ulterior motive; was moved by political ambition to get solid with the hoi polloi. Often I heard it whispered, “What’s Gage up to?” Of course, they knew nothing about it; many wanted to know nothing about it; they did not come to find out, or even to scoff. Had they come they would have sat in an audience as respectful, orderly and tolerant as it has been my lot to know.

Why did we stop at the end of three years? The answer throws light on this very situation. When the season was coming on for the fourth year, the representative of the anarchist group -- whom I had learned to esteem and respect as a right-minded young man -- came to me and asked: “What about the Economic Club? Are we to have another series of meetings this winter?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m game.”

“That is what I thought you’d say,” he answered, “but I’ve come to tell you I don’t think you can afford it. You [page 2] are injuring your influence with your class. I think it is asking too much. On the other hand, the same thing is true with me. I have had considerable influence with the group I represent in the past. I find I’m being compromised and looked on with suspicion by them. It’s been flung out at me that I’ve been hypnotized by Gage; that I’ve gone to his house and drunk champagne and eaten his luncheons until I’ve become subservient.”

Of course it was untrue about the champagne and the subservience. I had served lunch at our group meetings and we had had beer together. But I had to admit there was force in what he said; we had served our turn. We had broken ground; and we left the field for others to harrow. With the passage of years, I am more than ever convinced that the idea can be applied in our American life, and at 83 I am sharing in applying it in this Southern California community.

Now is a time when mental interest in social, economic, political and ethical questions is very keen; and in an arena where there is what you may call liberty, freedom of expression, toleration and sympathy, education is possible in all directions -- not only among the uninformed, but among those who call themselves superintelligent. Educating fellows upwards is just as important as educating fellows downwards.

For some time after the Haymarket riots, such efforts met with closed minds on the part of exponents of business opinion. Yet there was urgent need to do something to heal the moral wound left by the bomb-throwing, the sentencing of eight men to death, the pardoning of five who had been convicted in the heat of public passion, and the feelings aroused by these occurrences. Despair lies in the deep-seated prejudices of both sides of society. They don’t know and don’t want to know how the other fellow feels. Bitterness and hostility are gangrene in the body politic. Repression merely drives it underground.

Now, I do not believe men ought to be permitted to throng the streets and get up on soap boxes to advise murder and arson. Men should be taught to have political institutions flexible and elastic enough so that, given time, we can have any system of society we want -- that is, that the majority wants. The Constitution guarantees this opportunity. People ought to be taught the reforms they seek should be political reforms that can find means for expression in the ballot box. That takes time and patience. It may take generations. But it is the only road. While this process of education is going on, there should be the freest possible discussion of principles. If the anarchist can show a state society framed along the lines he thinks to be an improvement over what we have today, can draw so enticing a picture that in the judgment of those here they want to try it, so long as he counsels the use of the means provided by our political system, he should be secure in his right to draw it and they in their right to vote on it. But every man who counsels violence, sabotage, or secret assassination ought to be locked up, whether he is an I.W.W. or a Methodist preacher.

I would draw the line at leading mobs to riots, incendiarism, murder, pillage and looting. I would repress all these with the severest kind of repression. They injure everybody, perpetrators as well as victims. One extreme tends to beget the other. All violent expressions and violent acts, such as distribution of bombs through the mails, or hamstringing cattle, or burning haystacks, tends to stimulate an extreme of repression. To the other extreme the responsible elements of society should carefully guard themselves not to be carried.

This is especially true with respect to the industrial questions which, in the new century, are cleaving men into bitter camps. There are three elements, as I see it, necessary to effective production. These three elements are in themselves dead elements, unless vitalized by those who control them. These elements are land or opportunity, capital, labor. Opportunity unveiled, or land lying idle, is fruitless; capital not devoted to production is wasted; labor unemployed results in fruitless idleness.

These three elements, opportunity, capital and labor, standing alone are each helpless. To be effective they must be coordinated, and to be coordinated there must be a coordinator. This coordinator, in our present economic state, is the entrepreneur -- neither the capitalist nor the laborer. The man who sees, or thinks he sees, how to put these elements into conjunction for production, is the man who is able to get capital from the capitalist on terms mutually satisfactory; able to get from the laborer the labor he controls on terms mutually satisfactory. By conjoining these, he brings forth production which benefits directly or indirectly all of society.

All this is elemental and in my opinion cannot be too much emphasized or too thoroughly understood.

Speaking under the economic law, capital is a commodity; labor is a commodity. The man who controls capital, or owns it, may be classified as a capitalist. The man who controls his own labor and exercises it, in a hand sense, is a laborer. And while labor and capital alike, unused, are inert elements, their controllers are capitalists and laborers, employers and [employees]. These, without regard to the class to which they belong, are fellow members of the great social order. They are fellow human beings in aspirations and desires, and to the greatest degree possible should be in sympathy with each other. Any path that leads to that desirable condition is a good path to follow.

Being fellow members of society, the channels for their meeting and discussion should be kept open. Here and now, that much can be done. In the course of time, with experience tempering human motives, we may reach the stage of mutual entrepreneurs. I hope so. I do not know.

As I see it, the prevailing opinion, a widespread materialistic faith, is at bottom of much of the unrest, individual and national -- the idea that you go through the world once; have one chance and must grab; that anything you do is justified accordingly. The whole thing is a mistake; my hope is that the human being is but starting his career on earth.

We are all walking in more or less of a fog. We have a dangerous gift of liberty; but its exercise with reasonableness and caution is the way of progress. There are things superior to all the conventions of men. Those things are natural laws of life -- economic, social. One fundamental law is that society cannot consume more than it produces; and you cannot divide what doesn’t exist. These are laws not written in any statue book. They spring up as soon as men come into relationship with each other.

There is a law of life as there is of death. The two forces of constructiveness and destructiveness are operating blindly in the world. The constructive forces make for help, make for health and happiness, in contrast to the destructive moral forces of ignorance, hate, intolerance. No state of society can have the highest well-being where these latter prevail or are operative to any large degree.

These two groups of forces are operating now; always have been; always will be. And every right minded man who loves his fellows and wants to see the world go on, ought to line himself up with the constructive moral forces -- with education, toleration, mutual forbearance. Virulent criticism does not point the way. Lincoln’s touchstone of human relationship is needed today even as it was half a century ago: “With charity toward all; with malice toward none.”