Authenticity and Controversy

Ed Brenegar

Have you ever tried to express your own well thought out point of view on a controversial issue with honesty, and sensitively to opposing perspectives, only to find people characterizing your statements as biased and unfair? It happens in the workplace all the time. It happens in community groups, in churches, and, most unfortunately, sometimes even in our families.

Those of us who engage in public philosophy, seeking to help people to think in a more productive and disciplined way about things that really matter, are especially vulnerable to being misunderstood. We all take heat for things we didn't say, and didn't even imply. I started reflecting on this the other day when browsing through some of the reader reviews of Tom Morris' book Philosophy for Dummies. If you go there and look through buyer comments on True Success and If Aristotle Ran General Motors, you'll see lots of praise and appreciation. But if you look through the comments on the new book of general philosophy that Tom did for the Dummies series, you'll see everything from extremely effusive five star reviews saying it's the best intro to philosophy ever published to very angry and even disgusted one star diatribes. Of course, this is not uncommon in the history of philosophy. Indeed, it is the most common thing in the world. Some people loved what Socrates was doing. Others had him executed for it. I think Tom would agree that poison pen reviews on still beat hemlock any day.

But reflecting on the few emphatic angry voices to be found there, almost entirely from people offended by the positive and well reasoned remarks about the existence of God that the Dummies book contains, led me to some broader reflections.

Honest statements on controversial issues will always elicit criticism. The more emotionally laden the issue, the more the criticism may be pointed, heated, and itself unfair. But there is a compensating consideration. I think fair-minded people see through biased and emotionally charged criticism. The louder the volume, and the harsher the tone, the more it is itself suspect. There is, by contrast, one decidedly atheistic review of Tom's recent book on the Amazon website that disagrees with its conclusions, but is still very complimentary of the book's accomplishment. That is more in keeping with the kind of open, honest, and fair dialogue that I see our entire society needing much more of right now.

There seems to be a great divide among the population. On the one hand, there are those who are interested in seeing or hearing an honest, intelligent, respectful discussion of issues that matter to people. On the other hand, there are many who appear to feel that people should be assiduously protected from things that might challenge them at all, and as a possible result, hurt their feelings. I call this perspective "the politics of sentimentality," because it is really part of a political struggle, in the broadest sense of the term.

Some of the critics of the book Philosophy for Dummies object to the fact that Tom is a rare teacher of philosophy who actually takes a stand on issues where he believes he has seen the truth. They don't want to see anyone publicly affirming the existence of God, or the meaning of life, or life after death, among other disputed topics. They claim to want "objectivity," but don't seem to realize that objectivity requires only care and fairness, not a refusal to draw conclusions. Other critical readers object to the specific conclusions drawn, however humbly or "softly" they are suggested. They seem for the most part to be readers who have rejected in their own lives anything religious and have a visceral reaction against even the possibility that there is more to this world than meets the eye. We live at a time when atheists are often irked by religious believers, and the religious faithful are often perplexed by the atheists. But a fair reading of Philosophy for Dummies should neither irk or perplex. It's about as fair-minded an essay on ultimate questions as you'll find. Yet, the issues of general interest to us here aren't just the ones raised by the big cosmic questions. They are the ones raised by any controversial questions at all.

Sometimes people are offended by an honest statement on a controversial issue just because of an assumption that we always ought to protect people from the implicit challenge of a different opinion. I by contrast believe that honest human differences are for the most part good and healthy, and that a fair statement of any point of view on a difficult and controversial question can help us all to think it through more thoroughly. But many people I encounter day to day do not want to deal with this sort of open environment of candid dialogue. They seem to have the mindset that, because some issues are potentially so emotional, we should never grapple with them in public. We should instead protect people from having to face any emotional discomfort that might possibly result.

It is the height of condescension to think that intelligent, grown up people need to be protected from any points of view different from what they already hold for the simple reason that their feelings might get hurt. People aren't that fragile. It's the spirit and tone of any exchange of views that is most important. If people are respected, differences can be aired. In fact, if people are respected, differences should be aired, and not covered over.

Ultimately, when we are criticized for honestly stating our views, and giving them the most rational support we can muster, we have to be content in our own minds that we have been fair and respectful in how we have said what we've presented. I think that those of us concerned with excellence and fairness most often set higher standards for our own performance and character than other people do. If we meet our own exacting standards, then we should be pleased. In reaching those standards, of course, we should listen to the people close to us who care about us, and see us in a different light than the one in which we usually see ourselves. Having those relationships, whether with family, friends, colleagues, or a mentor, is important, and sadly lacking in too many people's lives. I value those relationships, and am still finding that the more honest I am in them, the more honest I can be with myself, and the more resilient I can be in the face of the inevitable set-backs and criticism that life throws my way.

Like many people in my generation intended for success in school and beyond, I was raised to be a "pleaser," fitting in with everyone, morphing into the group, almost as a Zelig character without a center core, responding to people's needs, but not really standing for something that creates that distinctive voice. In the recent past, as I have developed my own philosophical center more fully, the result has allowed me to rise out of that passivity, and be more fully human, as I have become more fully myself. I'm happier for it, and I think my family is healthier for it. Suppressing what is distinctive within us just to please others or avoid criticism is rarely a long term effective strategy. Sharing the best of who we are, and developing that with excellence, is a better path. And we can never become what we are capable of being without listening to the diverse voices of those around us, especially those closest to us, but in principle as broadly as possible, taking what we can use, and leaving what we can't.

A friend I worked with on a recent civic project gave me a book by Bruce Wilkinson called The Prayer of Jabez. It is a nice little book about reaching for what God's has for us in life. The story of Jabez comes from the Bible, from specifically I Chronicles 4: 9-10. I think it is applicable to all of this. Here it is:

"Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, "Because I bore him in pain." And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!" So God granted him what he requested."

I think this is a good prayer for all us who venture out into rough and tumble of the world. May we all be blessed, enlarge our territory for doing good, keep from evil, and cause no pain along the way! But may we also feel free to be ourselves, honestly saying what we think, and encouraging others around us to do likewise, with all the respect and sensitivity it takes to enlighten without unduly offending, and share without unfairly harming.

When we nevertheless take criticism, as we always will, we can take comfort in knowing that good ideas always stir the pot. If we're somehow pleasing everyone, we can't really be doing much good for anyone. The very fact that Philosophy for Dummies is offending a few of its readers is probably as good an indication as any that it's doing good for a great many others. A careful reading of it can help any of us to enlarge our own personal philosophical territories, and if we pay close enough attention, to do so with no pain at all.


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