The mishandled and snarky firing of Juan Williams has been widely commented upon & here I do little but sum up. Companies may dismiss as they wish – I hesitated and was quite often wrong in doing so. But I was not supported by tax money; my complaints were of what someone had done, not what was thought. While I don’t intend to more than mention it in class, I hope our assignments will lead my students to a useful historical context. For anyone who doesn’t know of the incident or needs refreshing, 3 Youtubes: Juan Williams’ words, his response and Vivian Schiller’s definition of journalistic ethics & integrity.
Let’s review the controversy.
What Williams said many (most) feel. Of course, he wished he didn’t feel it. But the response was prompted by experience: not only was 9/11 done in the name of a religion, but so were a series of often incompetent but sometimes successful (think Fort Hood) efforts by Soldiers of Islam. In court and openly, perpetrators claim connections between these scattered events – the first shots in a coming religious war. To ignore that is to shut our eyes and ears. Only a society asleep, unconscious, dead – or purely ideological – could so discount experience. An unthinking mob may be a tool some desire, but this is not a virtuous desire. The motives behind such desires are perhaps most beautifully exemplified by Frederick Douglass, who counters our initial state (one the plantation owners desire to be life-long) with one of virility and manliness, characterized by restlessness, curiosity, independence, autonomy. Another 19th century writer, Thoreau, talks about the pleasure of a “fact.” When facts are taboo, so is thought.
Williams’ response was honest: asked if he meant something else, he said, no, he’d said what he meant. Of course, what is implicit is that he meant what a sentient being with appropriate instinctive responses feels. He wants to overcome those responses and see all humans as our brothers – as do all of us. But believers who say they want us to die make that more difficult – and when they say it is because of the beliefs they hold, we have a right to be wary of their beliefs. We can say they misunderstand their own religion – often a different one from ours or one they firmly hold when we hold none, so I have doubts about our authority – but such cool thinking trembles when faced by our passionate instincts.
That that religion is one firmly held by millions who do not want to kill us is also true. That is important in terms of the future, the potential for religious war, and how we treat our Muslim neighbors. It is, however, small solace to the family of a victim of these first shots nor are we really sure whether these more passive beliefs will prevail: its proponents seem less firm and certainly less ruthless than their jihadist fellow believers.
Transcending our instincts to love our neighbors & leave tribalism behind is one of the great arguments of the Judeo-Christian tradition; moving beyond tribalism to the rule of law is our great secular, civic and even spiritual goal. However, powerful reasons make it hard to overcome instincts – these loyalties give us the intense pleasure of our relationships with family and friends; indeed, we see them as integral to who we are. As important, they are designed to save us.
The firing is controversial; it is condemned because of many reasons; our first reactions were simple, later ones become more complex.
An immediate reaction is that NPR’s quite recent & lucrative connection with Soros is suspect; the inflow of Soros money has further compromised an already ideological and compromised news source. This is a man who appears to find our elections buyable, our news buyable – and, I would assume, our minds buyable. His carrot is large. We are quicker to impugn their motives if we have already become irritated with their stand; such a response may be petty, but it is a reasonable response. If we don’t think they can be bought – if we believe they have set a higher standard – the nearness of this bequest is still likely to make us uneasy.
Second, NPR is accountable to taxpayers as most other businesses are not: often they note a program is “taxpayer funded.” These are attached to programs most taxpayers do not watch, would not watch, and certainly wouldn’t fund. Taxpayers have neither a powerful stick nor a powerful carrot, but this may lead them to action since their frustration has long been building.
Third, the gratuitous observation that Williams needs to talk to his psychiatrist about his problem indicates a level of enforced group think we’ve long suspected at NPR, done with the snarkiness we have long expected from people of certain beliefs. It is not attractive. And it reminds us of when and where psychiatry enforced groupthink – not an admirable tradition.
But these three are small beside the fourth. This is the belief acted out here: groupthink should rid others of their beliefs, enforce acceptance of a consensus opinion, punish for wrongthought. The consensus need not be broad (here it is surely in a minority), but the consensus need only be of those in power. It arises from a remarkable certainty in the interpretation of experience. Doubts in a free society should not come from nihilism – it isn’t that there isn’t a truth – but rather of humility – we may not know it. We see in Schiller’s stance little humility and inappropriate certitude.
So, we come to my students.
My freshmen were given two major writing/arguing/research tasks, developed in three writing assignments. The first and third defined a specific right. For the first paper, they were to find a controversial example that exemplified the application of the right. Their third paper will discuss whether the application is appropriate/inappropriate; this can argue legality. At this point, their argument may assume legality, but then argue that an action is /is not productive or wise. Not surprisingly, many have chosen the mosque controversy but some have gone to Kelo, some “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, some Fred Phelps.
In an assignment designed to be written more quickly under greater time constraints, they have been asked to define gendercide, the feminization of American education, or democide, with examples. (The latter was added after only one person in two classes knew about the killing fields.) I have been grading these this weekend & will discuss both research topic & these papers in conferences.
The two topics are connected, of course. Students often conclude “We should never let this happen again” – and my response is that it has happened again and it will. How do we make it less likely to happen? To underline the importance of the open marketplace, they have read Jonathan Rauch’s “In Defense of Prejudice.” His contrarian title leads to a fervent argument for the open marketplace of ideas, the inadvisability as well as impossibility of ridding minds of thoughts. If our rights to physical protection are respected, then we don’t get into others’ minds, we don’t want to, we shouldn’t. Hate speech may be ugly and often dissenters are wrong. But allowing dissent encourages those dissenters who are right, encourages a distinction between theory and act that is important – and in some cases demonstrates a difference between theory and experience. Groupthink doesn’t lead to a productive society – why did East European scientists turn from biology under communism?
Control leads to mental dissonance – our lives themselves are discounted. Closing our mind to our own experiences is difficult and can only be done by a willful disregard for the experience and the interpretation of experiences by which we define ourselves. Free inquiry begins with questions, some of which may well assume falsehoods; truth is the product of free inquiry. As Jefferson observes
Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only.
Our founders understood human nature; Publius’ #10 defines factions – we might say the NPR faction and the Fox faction; the 90% who acknowledge fear of Muslims as they embark on a flight and the 10% who do not. And how would we remove the source of these factions? Madison notes the impossibility of reaching into us. Such uniformity requires “destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” His passionate argument notes
Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a lesser folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
And whose truth would we all believe? Clearly the executive at NPR believes she has special access to the appropriate, “right” response man must feel, but Publius knew
As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves
That we are fired by self-interest is obvious; as Franklin observes after breaking his vegetarian habit (he contemplated his reasoning after smelling frying fish straight from the water): “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” Whether self-love defines a personal view as moral or altruistic or sensitive or practical, it is also motivated by less attractive human desires for sensual pleasures, power over others, or money. We generally find reasons for what we want rather than what we don’t. That isn’t wrong – it is human. But that we should express them and hear others’ opposing reasons is an important, central core value in the United States. Madison notes that: he observes that the purity of another’s motives should be less our concern than the strength of their arguments. Even if none have suspect motives, reasoning may be weak; those with the most suspect of motives may develop a well-reasoned argument.
But what reasoning is invoked in this argument? The NPR executive argues Juan Williams’ feelings – his responses to experience – are best shared with psychiatrists or publicists, best reshaped to “right think” and only held for reasons of financial gain. Such is the thinking of those Rauch defines as “purists” – only the greedy or crazy could disagree.
We saw many in the twentieth century and now in the twenty-first who want to exercise power over our interpretations of our experiences. That may be a lust for purism; indeed, they may fool themselves that it is because they have the truth. But the truth here was what a man felt. How can that be a truth someone else knows?
If it is truth they want, they should trust experience to prove it true. They should long for the truth to be certified by others’ experiences, others’ interpretations. That trust implies respect of others and humility toward our own understanding of truth. But such humility is not today’s virtue. Schiller’s smirk reveals pleasure. Indeed, feeling a power over the interpretation of others’ own experiences is seductive, for few powers are greater. And we can, I suppose, be thankful that such groupthink hasn’t yet reached the place where statues on street corners and portraits in our houses signal our experience’s interpretation by another’s mind & whims. But we, my students as they read, know that it has happened before and will again. And it is against that more than any other enemy that we should always be on our guard.