A row of separate soapboxes

Our nation, of course, is in the thrall of a bitter conflict between two worldviews, each strengthened and reinforced by means hardly imagined a generation ago. Each worldview broadcasts from its own television networks, speaks from its own pulpits, and teaches at its own universities. Places where people still go as a matter of course – to college, to church, and even to the TV to catch the evening news – often no longer permit the views of its rival worldview.  These institutions and media sources showcase the opposing worldview’s extremes as if they were its chosen representatives or at least its byproducts. By doing so, organizations with the biggest claim to our ears reinforce our perceptions of the fundamental error inherent in the worldview they disparage.

We exist in bubbles that a generation ago weren’t bubbles at all. The fact that colleges, churches, and television networks hold tenuously to a reputation of impartiality serves only to lull us into believing that we live in democracy’s full flower. We walk as free men walk, but our freedom is largely an illusion.

Well-frequented places where worldviews air their differences have been reduced even as our access to information has increased. The U.S. Senate, the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, has ground to a halt, and not because deliberation takes time. Senators really don’t debate anymore on the Senate floor or anywhere else. Presidential debates draw millions of viewers to the possibility of debate, but the undecided voters usually go away unsatisfied. Candidates ignore questions with impunity, and formats trivialize thoughtful debate and encourage sound bites.

In twenty-first-century America, a person can spend her adult years without being confronted with one thoughtful argument in favor of the worldview she has dismissed. The best she can hope for is being stuck in traffic behind a particularly clever bumper sticker or stuck in line behind a particularly thoughtful tee short.

I’ve read lots of pieces on how to address what separates us. I’ve written some, too. The best article I’ve read was written long before this pall fell on our present polity. Some excerpts from Walter Lippmann’s article “The Indispensable Opposition,” first published in the August, 1939 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:

If the democratic alternative to the totalitarian one-way broadcasts is a row of separate soapboxes, then I submit that the alternative is unworkable, is unreasonable, and is humanly unattractive. It is not true that liberty has developed among civilized men when anyone is free to set up a soapbox, is free to hire a hall where he may expound his opinions to those who are willing to listen. On the contrary, freedom of speech is established to achieve its essential purpose only when different opinions are expounded in the same hall to the same audience.

For, while the right to talk may be the beginning of freedom, the necessity of listening is what makes the right important. Even in Russia and Germany a man may still stand in an open field and speak his mind.

We must insist that free oratory is only the beginning of free speech: it is not the end, but a means to an end. The end is to find the truth.

For experience tells us that it is only when freedom of opinion becomes the compulsion to debate that the seed which our fathers planted has produced its fruit. When that is understood, freedom will be cherished not because it is a vent for our opinions but because it is the surest method of correcting them.

For unless all the citizens of a state are forced by circumstances to compromise, unless they feel that they can affect policy but that no one can wholly dominate it, unless by habit and necessity they have to give and take, freedom cannot be maintained.

I encourage you to read Lippmann’s entire piece, which speaks to us as the prophet Samuel spoke to a self-deluded, bubble-wrapped King Saul from the grave.