Honesty, Debate, and Literature

July 21, 2011

I was driving to a coffee shop this morning, listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR. Diane’s guest was Juan Williams, the author of Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate. The book goes on sale next week (July 26) from Random House. Here’s a piece of the description from the publisher’s website:

In today’s partisan world, where media provocateurs rule the airwaves and political correctness dictates what can and cannot be said with impunity, Williams shows how the honest exchange of ideas and the search for solutions and reasonable compromise is deliberately muzzled. Only those toeing the party’s line—the screaming voices of the extremist—get airtime and dominate the discussion in politics and the media. Each side, liberal and conservative, preaches to a choir that revels in expressions of anger, ideology, conspiracies, and demonized opponents. The result is an absence of truth-telling and honest debate about the facts.

While I have mixed feelings about Williams’s statement and dismissal and the resulting NPR funding debate, I think he raises a worthwhile question: how important are the words with which we engage in open conversation? When “diplomacy” and “political correctness” meet “honest” and “unflinching” conversation, at what point does each side need to compromise?

The same concern seems to underlie the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks. Diplomats speak more freely if they are not afraid of hearing their words in a sound byte on the nightly news; however, they also discard some of the tact and consideration associated with their posts.

Although legal concerns are certainly important, if the only angle discussed is the legal protection of free speech, I think we risk missing the personal. The promotional copy writer for Williams’ book concludes that “Only by bringing such hot button issues into the light of day can we hope to grapple with them, and exercise our cherished, hard-won right of free speech.” In my mind, it’s not quite that simple. In our media-saturated world, thousands of issues see the light of day and yet are not seen. The glare of competing messages, preconceptions, buzzwords, and mistranslation still gets in the way.

What is (often) lacking is a decompressing of the “hot button issues” into information that admits complexity and contradiction. What is (often) lacking is the idea that free speech can be used to build up, not just to tear down. What is (often) lacking is a face-to-face encounter that is not about “winning” an argument but about building a relationship.

To me, some of these missing pieces are cultivated by the study and practice of literary thinking. What I mean by “literary thinking” is a model of reading the world that places you in the perspective of others, admits and works within contradiction, and pays attention to the limitations of language and human understanding, while seeking to recognize its beauty and potential.

The idea is still half-formed, and of course, this blog is also a mediated platform subject to the same weaknesses I just identified. Perhaps my musings have no practical value at all. Nonetheless (pointless whimsy or not, impractical idealism or not, lexical gap or not), I cannot help wishing that the mode and tone — not necessarily the subject — of conversations about literature could translate more often to the political realm.

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