Lange: On bias and preconception

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(HOST) The current debate about health care reform has reminded commentator Willem Lange of a pair of teachers whose precepts have guided him for years.

(LANGE) Many years ago in Speech and Rhetoric class, my fellow sufferers and I found ourselves under the pedagogic thumb of one Thomas A. Donovan, who fiercely pruned away our biases and preconceptions.  If, during one of our recitations, any of us used a phrase like "As everybody knows…" or "As a matter of fact…" he would be arrested in midair by a loud expostulation from the corner where Mr. Donovan stood, and told to come back the next day with less baloney in his sandwich.  With Mr. Donovan it was two strikes and you were out.  We feared and revered him.

He assigned debate topics and conducted the debates according to the rules of the discipline: You had to substantiate your argument, or at least establish the likelihood of its superiority.  He seemed to know which side of any topic I wanted to argue, and always gave me the other.  Drove me nuts! and he knew it.  But one day, when my frustration became obvious, he pointed out that if you don’t know what other people are likely to be thinking or arguing, you’re flying blind without instruments.

Mr. Donovan’s rhetoric class complemented the American History class of a very proper Oxonian named Mr. Silk.  The product of a constitutional monarchy which had produced the Magna Carta, he seemed excited to be teaching in New England, part of a republic which governed itself by towns as a democracy.  It’s not only the privilege, he preached, but the duty of each member of a democracy to obtain all the education he can, to inform himself on issues, and to argue them vigorously when they affect him.  

I was raised to respect the authority of family, constabulary, and Bible, and found that an astounding revelation.  It was my duty to dissent if anything smelled fishy or someone was talking rot.  My poor parents!  Mr. Silk had lent my adolescent rebellion an air of legitimacy – of patriotism, even!

At the moment we’re engaged in a great civil war – one of dueling sound bites and slogans rather than cannons and caissons.  The ends of our political spectrum are no farther apart than they’ve ever been; but with easy access to news and commentary, and talking heads of both left and right, the ferment at the edges often seems more important than the moderation in the middle.  It certainly gets more attention.

In this situation, it may be hard to remember Mr. Donovan’s warning to consider what other people are thinking, and why; but that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do, for the sake of both debate and democracy.

I find it helps to consider how I might argue an opposing point of view if Mr. Donovan were suddenly to appear, like Marley’s ghost, and say, "Lange, take the affirmative!"  And if Mr. Silk were to do the same, and say, "Never forget the privilege you have to intelligently express any argument, but in which you are adjured by your citizenship to do so."

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.

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