Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Why Am I Shouting?

We've become a nation of shouters. Even those who speak softly wield opinions which shout at us.

And we shout in other ways too. The kid who went on the shooting spree in a Minnesota high school this week was shouting in a tragically violent way and ten people gave their lives for it.

The producers of television programming, whether they churn out the reality shows that blare on MTV or the cable news network's "political debates" that almost always pit "conservatives" and "liberals," love shouting matches.

Moderation, whether in one's views on political and social issues or in how they're presented, is put down in contemporary America.

Some accuse moderates of being "unprincipled."

Others dismiss moderate folk as anal, disengaged, and dangerously dispassionate.

All of which, I think, is a bunch of hooey!

For discourse in democracy to be helpful, we need a lot less shouting. We need a lot more people willing to say, "I don't know about that subject" and then, listen.

I've come to respect blogger Ann Althouse very much. But today, my respect for her has truly escalated. In the face of people nagging her to take a hard stand on the Terri Schiavo case, she's refused to offer her opinion of the underlying guts of the matter.

She has spoken on aspects of the situation, especially on those aspects where she has some expertise as a professor of law conversant in the issues of federalism surfaced by the Schiavo legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President days ago. But she doesn't feel bound to have an opinion about everything and indeed, my respect for her would be diminished if she did speak on every issue that comes along.

I especially love two paragraphs in the post in which she explains herself:
I'm not going to fill up my blog with speculation about what has really motivated the husband and parents of Terri Schiavo over the years. There are all kinds of horrible things one could say about them. It's easy to think of those things and to write them down. As to end of life decisions and the hard realities of death and dying, thousands of painful dramas play out every day. I don't have general pronouncements to make about how these should be resolved. Terri Schiavo's drama was enacted in public because of the bitterly hardened dispute between the husband and the parents. The dispute made an occasion for people with strong moral beliefs to argue their positions in high media profile.

I am not one of those people who have fixed beliefs about "the culture of life" or "the right to die," so I don't have an automatic side to take and the desire to fight it out. I think these are difficult matters, and I maybe I should write about them here and increase the proportion of moderate writing. But I pick my subjects here. When I choose to write about something serious, it's usually because I think I have something different to say or some extra value to bring to the table. When I'm silent about something, you can speculate about what I might think, but you don't know. You can try to goad me to write on a subject by emailing me your speculations about what I think (and feel), and maybe I will reveal it, but maybe I'm really quite committed to my silence.
I love that! It's a principled stand and it's one filled with honesty and integrity.

It's also shrewd, when you think about it, although I doubt that shrewdness enters Althouse's calculations. By restraining herself from speaking up about everything, the impact of her opinions on those subjects she knows or feels strongly about is only enhanced. There's a lesson in that for all of us.

So the next time somebody tells you that they don't have an opinion or that they don't believe that the people with whom they disagree are the devil-incarnate, don't dismiss them as unprincipled or disengaged. Instead, you might want to ask yourself a few questions:
Why do I have the opinion I hold? (This is the, Why am I shouting? question.)

Do I, as a general rule, have more opinions than knowledge of the facts?

Have I embraced what Canadian composer-singer Bruce Cockburn calls the "idolatry of ideology"?

If the answer to the last question is, "Yes," what am I going to do about it?
And to keep being fair-minded and open, read Ann Althouse's blog! It's one of the best on the web...even when you disagree with her.

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