I rarely write about politics because, well, because people stop thinking whenever anything they deem to be political is mentioned. One confounding factor in any political discussion is something called “political correctness.” This became apparent during a recent chance meeting with Diane Rehm.
For those who somehow have never heard of Diane Rehm, she hosted an eponymous radio show on NPR for 37 years. She retired from that a few years ago, but still does a podcast. She also, apparently, does small yacht cruises. That’s where I met her. She had brought along 40 other people, long-time listeners and participants of her program. Each was to read a book called The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by historian Jon Meacham, and they would discuss it. In addition to their private meetings, she hosted three public discussion events. That’s when I realized something important.
The overall premise, presumably of Meacham’s book, but clearly of Rehm and the more vocal participants from the audience, was that the current Trump regime was a danger to democracy. I was surprised to see this given the clientele of the cruise was rather noticeably the demographic usually most supportive of pro-rich, pro-business, “conservative” policies: older, wealthier, almost universally white. Rehm herself pointed out that there were no persons of color. Of the 216 passengers, all were white except for three Asian women; two of whom had lived in the US for 21-40+ years, one of whom had lived in Australia for a like amount of time; and one biracial (white American/Korean) man. Everyone that I spoke with either owned a company or was some high-end professional (e.g., doctor, lawyer, CEO). Without exception, everyone on board was financially secure and largely unaffected by most of the issues that affect the general middle class or working class poor (e.g., health care costs, educational access).* One was a former Governor of Colorado. These would seem not to be the kind of crowd often characterized as a bunch of bleeding heart liberals, and yet it appeared that many, if not most, of the participants thought we were in the midst of a constitutional crisis.
Therein lies the issue. After the second discussion event I had a chance to speak privately with Diane Rehm. I pointed out that the event discussion was almost exclusively one sided – those who believed the current administration was a threat to democracy. An occasional middle-ground voice would suggest there were problems with the government in a Reaganesque sense, but they were outnumbered by the “we have a crisis” voices. No conservative voices spoke up, although a few people got up and left the room. I don’t know if they were conservative, but in speaking with one group later I doubt they held the same opinion as Rehm. One couple I had spoken with after the first event clearly was “conservative” and agreed with Trump’s insistence that the border was porous, yet they apparently didn’t feel comfortable speaking up amidst a crowd in which they were the minority (or perhaps just not vocal). I asked Rehm how to broaden the discussion to include conservative as well as non-conservative voices.
Both Rehm and I had noticed a trend. Too often the discussion devolves into “I don’t want to have this discussion because we disagree.” Liberals will sometimes refuse to talk if their liberal views are challenged, but in my experience this is fairly limited (apparently liberals like to talk). The real problem is with conservatives, something I’ve noticed and confirms what congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein and others have asserted after much study.** Conservatives simply close up and hide rather than discuss views that are uncomfortable. Let me be clear here – I’m not talking about the rabid “Trumpers” who seem to be acting out some existential fear of “the other.” These people cannot be reasoned with because any fact, any reason, any idea that challenges their often psychopathic cultism is simply written off as part of the global conspiracy against them. I experienced this psychopathy first hand. Two people whom I thought I knew summarily cut off any contact with me as soon as I challenged a “fact” they offered that wasn’t true. Unfriended in a moment. One even spewed out “I guess you’re just smarter than me” and unfriended me. These are not merely “Facebook friends”; these are people I knew and had personal relationships with in real life. Now, neither will talk to me even though the “fact” they offered is still non-factual and I was willing to allow them their point just to keep the conversation going. They were afraid. Worse, I think they deep down inside knew their “fact” was false, but admitting it would mean admitting weakness or intellectual dishonesty. I’m certainly willing to re-friend both people, and in fact will always cherish the friendships we had together, but I’m doubtful that either will ever be honest with themselves enough to make the effort. The ball, as they say, is in their court.
No, what I’m talking about the kind of conservatives on this cruise. Confident, educated, successful, financially secure, capable of reasoned discussion. But yet they didn’t speak up. Why? Was it because they felt outnumbered by a “liberal audience”? Given the demographics, I suspect there were many more “conservatives” than “liberals” in attendance, but most of the input was made by people who agreed with Rehm that we were in a crisis. [Or perhaps, understanding we are in a crisis is not “liberal” after all. Maybe it’s just honest analysis.***] Did they not want to speak up because they couldn’t defend their views? Or because they “didn’t want a fight”? Or, well, I don’t know why. Rehm certainly made an effort to have voices heard, yet one view remained silent.
This is where political correctness comes into play. Usually we hear the term used to blast “liberals” for complaining about what language is allowed or not allowed. Old racial descriptions are now considered racial slurs, thus liberals are to blame. In reality, they were always racial slurs. The only difference is that now the people that are the target of those slurs are speaking up for themselves and society as a whole has deemed racism to be repugnant. Societal sensitivities change, but mostly what we consider appropriate vs inappropriate comes from empowering those who were previously powerless, which tends to irritate those who once owned all the power.
But there is a another form of political correctness that actually reflects the opposite of the traditional “political correctness” definition. People don’t want to defend their views. They feel they can just say what they think without ramification. They feel that the First Amendment of the Constitution protects their “right to free speech.” While generally true, we do have exceptions, with “yelling fire in the theater” or “hate speech” being the most obvious. We often think that our views are sacrosanct because they are our views. Challenging our views (especially with facts we prefer not to admit) is seen as an attack on our person. It’s politically correct, we think without using that terminology, to have our views remain unchallenged.
Needless to say, that’s not honest. Our views must be informed based on fact or they are challengeable. If the facts prove our view wrong, then that view is wrong. It isn’t right because we “have a right to our own opinion.” If I hold a belief that is not supported by fact, and indeed disproved by fact, then that belief is wrong and I have an obligation to alter my false belief.
One private conversation I had with someone is perhaps an example of how to move forward. He offered a view that I disagreed with. Rather than say he was wrong, I asked him why he thought that way. He offered a “fact” that didn’t sound like a fact to me (and since then I have been unable to find any support for it whatsoever), but again rather than tell him he was wrong I continued to query to find out what was driving his view. I thought that even if his “fact” was indeed fact, the conclusion he drew from it seemed inconsistent with the “fact” pattern, and ignored other known facts that would bring his conclusion into question. I didn’t tell him this because I knew from experience it likely would end the conversation. Meanwhile, I acknowledged other points he made that I did agree with, at least to some extent, or where I acknowledged the legitimate fact he provided, and offered some additional facts and views to stimulate further thinking on his part (and mine). I also worked hard to avoid offering points or “facts” I wasn’t sure I had the information to support. I constrained myself from simply offering my contrary point of view, especially since we got into a topic he had more experience with than did I. But mostly, I listened. And by listened, I mean actively listened, asking questions to clarify and to draw out more information. My goal was to try to understand his view better. In the end, the conversation was too short to resolve the issue, either in agreement or disagreement or even a path forward to solve the problem he described. Since then, we engaged in a short email exchange and he suggested further reading, which I’m in the process of following up on (along with the Jon Meacham book that started this whole discussion). I’m hoping we have a chance to continue the conversation.
My point here is two-fold. First, the Diane Rehm public discussion events were very much needed and would be a good template for more widespread public discourse. I would encourage working harder to draw out more than one viewpoint, but acknowledge that this is difficult for the reasons described above. I also realize this is a discussion that must take place on a nationwide scale and for an extended period of time, periodically over many years. For this to happen we need the “leadership” to make it happen, something that seems unlikely in the current political and social atmosphere.
Second, we must all individually make an effort to listen what other people are saying. I realize that expecting reasoned discourse from cult-like followers is likely impossible, but even these folks – perhaps especially these folks – will follow wherever the informed crowd eventually leads. Which puts the onus on the rest of us to combine active listening with reasoned discourse with those around us. That doesn’t just mean a boat full of wealthy and successful white folk, it means talking to your family and your neighbors no matter what demographic(s) that gets pigeonholed into. It means listening to find out why they believe what they believe. It means not focusing on Democratic vs Republican or White vs Black or Christian vs Muslim or Rich vs Poor. Rather it means talking to whomever is in your immediate orbit. If you have a diverse orbit, all the better. But reasonable evangelical Christians have as much responsibility in discourse with the most rabid evangelical Christians as do reasonable Muslims with extremist Muslims. We each have our influence zones. Each of us must engage in rationale discourse within those zones. The more we can have conversations with a greater diversity of input, the better; but even if we can’t, we have an obligation to shun political correctness and have important conversations with those around us.
Abraham Lincoln, in his 1838 Lyceum Address, noted that “reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” was what our nation needed for the future, not merely the passion that led to our founding.
Clearly today our passions have often overwhelmed our ability to reason. Lincoln also is the source for another quote that we might consider in these times:
The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
Since both parties today embrace the mantle of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps we should heed his words.
*I may be an exception. As a poor, starving writer I have health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare); otherwise it would be functionally unaffordable.
**I consider myself an Independent. Besides thinking that labels are lazy and a cop-out, I find that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” often don’t mean what either their proponents or opponents think they mean. Therefore, I stick to the philosophy I used throughout my scientific consulting career – put all the options on the table and find one, or a mix, that will resolve the issue.
***There could also be some self-selection bias going on here. Since 20% of the passengers were part of Diane Rehm’s entourage, it’s likely that those people were ones who generally agreed with Rehm’s point of view. That, however, doesn’t count the other 80%, who were not involved in her show and likely didn’t even know she would be aboard (e.g., like myself).
David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.