What Do You Need to Listen For In Views You Cannot Stand?
Sam Tanenhaus is the book review editor of the New York Times, he is also a historian who has written biographies of Whittaker Chambers and is working on one about William Buckley — in other words he takes conservatism seriously and wants to understand and explain it as an intellectually respectable point of view. This past Sunday he wrote about the Texas social studies changes tinyurl.com/y9fbv2m – an article that is worth reading not only for what it says about Texas, but for the larger point it raises: when a person or group holds a view that you completely disagree with, what do you need to listen for? When are you recoiling wthout thinking? When is there the germ of something you need to hear, even in views you detest?
Tanenhaus begins with a very good point — one that actually relates to us in books for young readers — in the 60s, he points out, it was the left — the black nationalists for example — who said we needed to move away from a common history that claimed to speak for all, and, instead, have Black Studies departments, or — (though he does not bring this up) the idea that you needed to be from a group to write about it "authentically." He sees the far right’s desire now to claim that America was always a Christian nation — that is, to ditch the view held by mainstream scholars that America was built on separating Church and State — as being similar to the old Black Nationalism claim that blacks should write their own distinct history. Who I Am — both sides are saying — Gives Me a Right to Disregard the Middle and Insist on the Validity of My Own Story.
Now I think he stretches this point too far — and you’ll notice in his article that after citing one scholar he backtracks and makes clear that a set of articles written for academics in 1964 is hardly the same as a mandate for what to teach school children statewide. But there is a good and fair warning here — we need to understand the point of view, the world view, behind ideas we oppose. That does not mean we need to agree — I knew a reporter who was sympathetic to the points of view of even extremist Muslims in the Middle East, but he also recognized that some of the leaders he defended in print would shut down the same papers if they came to power. So to listen carefully does not mean to bow down — we can have the most meaningful debates and discussions when we pay careful attention to ideas we believe are totally wrong. After all, the one person who, in Jefferson’s lifetime, told the truth about Sally Hemmings far and wide was a scoundrel — but for generations historians dismissed the message because of the messenger.
What do we need to listen for in the views of those we disagree with — completely?