Truth, Served Up with Kindness

The contentious issues of our time require honesty, not the bludgeon approach.

I ran into Kirsten Powers briefly in Washington, D.C., the other day, and afterwards, I thought to myself: I hope she knows she is a profile in courage.

“The more I got to know actual conservative and religious people, the harder it was to justify the stereotypes I had carelessly embraced,” Powers writes in her new book, The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech.

In her early days at Fox, she writes, “I can remember trying to convince a conservative there that George Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court didn’t really count as a female appointment because she was conservative and an evangelical Christian.”

“He was horrified,” she writes. And she was “confused as to why he would be horrified.”

Today Powers is “embarrassed that I ever thought such a thing, let alone said it aloud.”

“Such a prejudiced view was only able to take root because of the lack of ideological, political, and religious diversity in my world.”

In her book, Powers chronicles the impulse among those on the left to shut down speech they disagree with, crafting policies that mandate certain actions and reduce freedom, as we’ve seen in the battles over religious freedom under Barack Obama’s administration.

This intolerance isn’t liberalism but a tyrannical impulse, often masked by words like freedom and tolerance. An unveiling of this could do us good. But not if we stay in ideological silos: What we need is open discussion across ideological lines.

John Carr, who used to work for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, started a forum at Georgetown when he retired from the USCCB a few years ago; his idea was to bring people of different political stripes together. On one of his panels I sat next to a bishop I had previously mostly known as the sign-off on criticisms of Paul Ryan’s budgets. But when we sat down and discussed Pope Francis and poverty, it turned out we had a lot in common.

When we can take a moment to encounter another person and begin to develop a relationship, with a little honesty, something beautiful might just happen.

It was a wonderful thing, similarly, when Carr’s initiative brought President Obama to Georgetown together with Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. Unfortunately, the president managed yet again to impugn the motives of those he disagrees with. That’s such a human thing to do. But it’s also unnecessary and unhelpful. And it’s certainly not Christian. I do it more often than I would wish, and I apologize for that. Maybe we could all make an effort not to do it as much as we do?

If the truth takes Powers down a road she hadn’t considered, she’ll consult some experts, take a look, and, as you’ve seen, even apologize.

Powers is a profile in courage because she aims for the truth. She is eminently humble. If the truth takes her down a road she hadn’t considered, she’ll consult some experts, take a look, and, as you’ve seen, even apologize. Apologize!

That doesn’t mean you have to water anything down. It does mean admitting that we’re human and that we get things wrong now and again, even in what we thought were our best defenses of what’s true and good.

I’ve seen this tyrannical impulse on the right, too. Recently, a colleague of mine wrote something I disagree with on marriage. Obviously, whether marriage is between a man and a woman is a debate we are having in the United States right now. There are some who would prefer not to hold a debate, but rather to have a judicial and legal bludgeon come down and beat people who take the traditional view into submission until our children are all trained from their earliest schooldays that not only marriage but even gender is flexible. Some have questioned National Review’s hiring practices, for making it possible that dissenting thinking on such a subject could ever infiltrate our masthead; others simply dismiss the author and call him names.

Kirsten Powers knows this well on the left. How about, for those of us on the right, instead of the incivility, we make compelling arguments? How about, for those on the traditional side, we hold up the good of marriage, and what it does for families, and why it is different from other loving relationships, and specific and needed and even possible in the world today? This surely is more inviting than the bludgeon approach.

“Truth is like a threshing-machine; tender sensibilities must keep out of the way,” Herman Melville wrote in The Confidence Man. When I asked Philadelphia archbishop Charles J. Chaput why he used that line to open an e-book on religious freedom a few years ago, he talked about the need for civility and honesty in our public discourse.

He talked about the need for charity and respect for others, then emphasized the need for truth: “The truth can be difficult, so we often want to soften its edges. But this just wastes time and compounds our problems. Candor can be uncomfortable in the short run, but it’s much healthier in the long run.”

“The point is this,” he continued: “We need to be frank with each other as Christian adults, frank in our public witness, and frank in our own self-criticism. Again, we also need to be prudent and kind — but not at the expense of courage, and not at the expense of speaking the truth.”

In the last year or so, some people have been wildly appropriating while others have been equally wildly rebuking quotes from Pope Francis. “Who am I to judge?” is one of them that has come to mean very different things to different people, often clouded by ideological hopes and fears. However, listening to him on an almost daily basis is a much more interesting endeavor: His words bring light to places that have been impenetrable, so that truth — even about what the pope he is actually saying — might just be able to get at the business of healing.

In The Silencing, Powers quotes my colleague David French reflecting on what he has seen on campuses: “anti-Christian discrimination can be reflexive,” and “a little bit of intellectual diversity can go a long way towards reversing its effects.” Even among friends, “biases” can be “deeply ingrained.”

“The moral of the story is simple,” Powers concludes. “We should all make efforts to invite people who hold different views into our worlds. Contrary to popular thought, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. It breeds understanding and tolerance. Now, go make some unlikely friends.”

This certainly sounds better than what we’ve often got!


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