| Nov 30, 2010
I am told on good authority that people today increasingly read only people with whom they already agree. If this is true, I think it is both pointless and sad. And it may be one of the factors contributing to the increasingly uncivil tone of our disagreements.
Some of my fondest youthful memories revolve around reading William F. Buckley Jr., a person with whom I often disagreed. I recall something Buckley wrote asserting that the Jeffersonian notion that “all men are created equal” is a metaphysical affirmation that has only tenuous political application. I think Buckley was probably wrong, but I’ve been chewing on his remark for more than thirty years. His insight was penetrating and worth the thought. His insights often were. I also confess that I love Buckley’s brilliance and wit. When asked, for example, what was the first thing he would do after the election (he once ran for mayor of New York) if he won, he answered, “Demand a recount!” Who but William F. Buckley would have said that?
My life would be much poorer if I ignored the thought of a thoughtful writer simply because our views differed. Why, in fact, ought we to read at all if not to encounter difference?
Another case in point is Philip Larkin. While his poetry is unparalleled, I often have disagreed with Larkin’s musing on life and music. Larkin could not stand Charlie Parker or the progressive jazz developments exemplified by Parker and Miles Davis. Larkin said of this movement’s use of the chromatic (instead of the diatonic) scale: “The diatonic scale is what you use if you want to write a national anthem, or a love song, or a lullaby. The chromatic scale is what you use to give the effect of drinking a quinine martini and having an enema simultaneously.” How could you not enjoy someone with such wit, even if he utterly misses the genius and beauty of the music produced by Parker and Davis?
An even deeper value of reading people with whom we disagree is illustrated in Larkin’s comments on children. He once wrote that “the first sharp waning of my Christian sympathies” occurred when he heard the verse, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these [little children]” (Mk. 10:14). Larkin said that if heaven is populated by children he would be miserable there. Children, according to Larkin, are noisy, nasty, cruel, and silly. Perhaps Larkin was bullied as a child, or not chosen for childhood games. Or, maybe, he was just inoculated against the sentimentality with which many people view childhood. Personally, I think Larkin is wrong about children. I tend to side with Kenneth Graham in believing that children are the only completely real human beings among us. But Larkin makes me stop and think about a biblical text I have taken for granted.
Good writers stimulate our thinking. They set the conditions in which we are encouraged to see things anew, because they refuse to be ruled by intellectual clichés. Writers should, I think, be judged as bad, not if we disagree with them, but if they leave us where they found us, unmoved, unchallenged, and unchanged. I would hope we would hold writers with whom we agree to this standard too. I would hope that we would enjoy writers large enough to encourage disagreement and agreement, people who think expansively enough that we cannot predict where they will land on a given issue.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for example, is a writer with whom I have generally shared a similar worldview. But one reason I appreciate him so much is because he thought so expansively, and about so many things than there are subjects, that in certain cases, I simply cannot agree with him. His brilliant essay, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1992), for instance, argues for an America in which “ethnic differences” must melt away, or else (he believed) we are threatened by “Balkanization,” the violent opposition of different groups against one another. I disagree strongly with Schlesinger on this point. Balkanization is not the inevitable consequence of ethnic, tribal, or religious differences, but the result of one group (which believes it alone has the claim to truth and the privilege to exist) attempting to enforce homogeneity at the end of a gun. However, because I respect the thoughtfulness with which Schlesinger engaged this and other subjects, he makes a winsome and worthwhile debating partner. I could say the same thing about so many other writers with whom I usually (though not always) agree, including Barbara Brown Taylor and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Annie Dillard and Will D. Campbell.
My point is this: The uncivil discourse that dominates the airwaves and coffee-counters of our country could be moderated, at least somewhat, if (1) we demanded more thoughtfulness of those with whom we agree and (2) if we were more willing to listen to those with whom we disagree. The interminable shout-fest that has become the norm in our society—whether the subject is politics, religion, or culture—will only be displaced if we demand better. And I think the first step toward demanding better is to listen to thoughtful people with whom we disagree (and, yes, I would differentiate this category of writers from mere demagogues and partisan hacks).
Would you agree?