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Saturday, September 24, 2005

Speaking Out Without Fear

In 1928, Virginia Woolf said that to answer certain questions, “truth is only to be had by laying together many varieties of error.” This is a way of learning that is still valid the 21st century.

Over the past few years our country has become more polarized than ever before in my lifetime. One-sided arguments fill the airways, the newsstands, and the bookstore shelves. Some people claim the liberal media is slanting the news. Other people claim the conservatives, through corporate ownership, are hijacking the news. Unscrupulous program directors on various TV channels and radio stations are making sure that you can choose the viewpoint you like, tune into a friendly station, and rarely hear or see a story that contradicts it. Religious extremists want to silence the voices of those who disagree with their theology.

I overheard my husband watching TV a couple of weeks ago. A group of teenagers were discussing their education. “Don’t go for a master’s degree,” one student advised another, “Getting a bachelor’s is okay; but if you get too much of an education, you will lose your faith.” What a sad state of affairs. Are our beliefs and ideas so fragile that learning about different points of view will destroy them? Are we so sure of ourselves and our opinions that we do not feel the need to learn anything else?

We speak of tolerance, but tolerance is not enough. When we tolerate some-one, we “put up with them.” Instead we should embrace diversity. We must be willing to hear other viewpoints and to let our understanding of the world become fuller and more substantial through this knowledge.

In 1991, during the first Gulf War, I worked as a civilian contractor for TOPGUN, Navy Fighter Weapons School at NAS Miramar in San Diego. Our department created the training materials for the fighter pilots teaching at the school. A favorite training slide at the time depicted cartoon Iraqi “ragheads” wearing turbans and plotting all kinds of evils. I’m sure this stereotype helped the pilots live with themselves as they dropped bombs over Iraq. When I think of Iraq, I don’t think of nameless, faceless “ragheads,” but of my high school friends, Fiama and Jennifer, who moved to Baghdad in the 1980s to live with their father. I often wonder if they are still there, if they are safe and healthy, if, perhaps, their sons are now Iraqi soldiers.

Virginia Woolf despaired of the stereotyping in her time as she said, “all this pitting of sex against sex, quality against quality”—today we might also say faith against faith, party against party—“all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private school age of human existence where there are ‘sides,’ and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of a Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot. As people mature they cease to believe in sides or in Headmasters or in highly ornamental pots.”

It is time to move beyond partisan politics. To throw away the narrow viewpoints that politicians would use to capture our votes. To rise above the pettiness and hostility preached by television evangelists. It’s time to talk to our neighbors and to each other, without fear and with all candor. Only by having open and honest conversations with real people can we ever hope to find the common ground that exists among us. And it is there. Don’t we all want food, shelter and safety? Don’t we all want to protect the beauty and dignity of our nation? Don’t we all dream of a better future for our children?

Mathematicians are fond of saying, “If an infinite number of monkeys are given typewriters for an infinite amount of time, they will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare.” This may be a mathematical fact; but if we close our eyes, ears, and mouths in a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” posture, we will not produce anything worthwhile in our lives. Wearing blinders, limiting our conversation, and reading only that with which we already agree will cripple us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

In response to pervasive polarization, many of us seem to be willing to censor our conversations in the hopes that we will “not offend anyone.” This is an impossible goal. We have a responsibility to speak out against closed-mindedness and bigotry while promoting reason and compassion instead. We must tell the stories, not only of the victors, the powerful, and the vociferous, but also of the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the silent.

Let us join with Virginia Woolf and continue in

“the habit of freedom and the courage to write

[and say] exactly what we think.”


All quotes from Virginia Woolf are from A Room of One’s Own . A different version of this essay first appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Women Writing the West Member Newsletter.

Posted by Donna at 12:45 PM
Categories: Discussions