By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Like many of us, I’ve read the back-and-forth exchanges between our host, Professor Turley, and Wisconsin law professor, Ann Althouse, about Prf. Turley’s Washington Post (WaPo) article proposing an expansion of the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) to nineteen members. It’s been a fascinating glimpse into what passes for dialog among American intelligentsia. Professor Turley reiterates a proposal he’s made years before, suggesting SCOTUS needs to keep up with the times and expand to reduce the power of a lone swing voter. Prf. Althouse responds that the reasons for the proposal cited by Prf. Turley are pure BS and that she knows better what’s in JT’s heart. Prf. Turley responds by saying her research into his position and attitude is deficient and laments the loss of civility among colleagues. Althouse replies that she’s just “plain talking” and that her real point was the manipulation of the timing of Turley’s article by the newspaper even as it drives its own pro-Obama agenda.
Well, that was illuminating. After about 3000 words from both professors, we are left feeling a little cheated. Professor Althouse has completely dismissed the merits of JT’s proposal, calling into question his motives and contending he’s simply court-packing when the opinions from the court won’t suit him. JT meanwhile doesn’t address the only salient point of Althouse that perhaps the WaPo has an agenda of its own in timing the story when it did. It seems reasonable to question WaPo’s timing only days before the pre-scheduled release of a controversial ruling by the Court. It’s part of a pattern of talking past each other, and one that is all too prevalent in public discourse today.
Let me say at the outset that much of my own commentary has been guilty of that about which I complain. And after watching this exchange among genuinely gifted scholars, I ‘m sorry for my approach. Honestly, it’s easier (and more fun) to respond in kind to pointed criticism than to deal with the merits of the opponent’s argument. There is a feeling of personal power in conquering the other guy with a pithy reply, or crushing your opponent with the foible of his mistaken — but likely inconsequential — fact. It’s human nature, I suppose, to return insult for insult no matter how elegantly phrased or deftly postured or principle-based the reply might seem. Behind it is that old demon, ego.
The problem is that this cheapens the dialogue. When I was young, there was a corny old song based on a Max Ehrmann poem called the Desiderata. There was one poignant line, however, that I remember, “Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.” And maybe that’s the point of this little musing: Even those considered in our personal arrogance “dull and ignorant” and insulting get a place at the table. Maybe they will surprise us with some unimaginable perspective that our ill-perceived ideological blinders haven’t permitted us to see. Perhaps we can look past the vitriol and find that there is merit to a diametrically opposed point of view even when we doubt the motives, good faith, and even the integrity of the speaker.
I’ve always liked George Bernard Shaw’s observation about apples and ideas:
If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.
The great Irish playwright and founder of the London School of Economics who was honored with both a Nobel prize and an Oscar, makes the point that no one is diminished by considering the differing view of another. In fact, the recipient is enriched. In my own life, I cannot tell you the number of times a firmly held position gave way to new circumstances that I never expected. Of course, civility in presentation makes that process easier, but should the idea be dismissed simply because of it was coarsely presented?
Maybe if we stepped back a moment from the battle and looked at the reason for the war, we’d do ourselves a service. The point of the recent debate about SCOTUS was to see if we needed a serious structural change for one of the three most important governmental institutions we have. Has the exchange of posts added to the debate or simply assuaged the egos of the writers? Like Shaw, can we now say that we have two ideas to mull instead of one?
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger