On most issues, I’m clear about where I stand and why, and I used to find it enlightening to debate informed people who felt strongly about opposing positions. Sometimes we would get each other to budge a little bit, or—at the very least—sharpen the articulation of our views. These days, I often find myself in echo chambers, preaching to choirs, and other clichés about epistemic closure. It’s a situation that alarms me, and yet I find even more alarming the levels of cynicism, invective, bad faith, threats, and misinformation that pervade so much partisan debate.
I know I’m not alone in this lament. What we’ve lost—among other humanist virtues—is what philosophers and rhetoricians call the “principle of charity,” generally defined as making the clearest, most intellectually honest interpretation we can of an opponent’s views and arguing against them on those merits. The principle of charity allows us to have civil disagreements with people whose ethics we may dislike, and it thereby furthers discussion rather than stifles it.
We may all have our own story about who is to blame for the breakdown of the discourse, but before we start yelling at each other all over again, we could perhaps take some time to learn from examples of political debate done well. One long-running example involves a figure whose views I’ve usually found abhorrent (and some of which he himself later called “reprehensible”), but whose ability to defend them in charitable sparring matches with people from every possible place on the spectrum (or horseshoe), I’ve found very compelling.
I write here of William F. Buckley, the well-heeled, Ivy League-educated (many have said elitist) founder of the National Review. Whatever personal strengths or flaws we wish to ascribe to Buckley, we should agree on a few facts: During his tenure as the host of Firing Line—an often oppositional interview program in which Buckley chatted up conservative fellow travelers and sparred with leftist intellectuals, artists, and activists—we see over and over again that he made an effort to actually read his opponents’ views firsthand; to clarify his understanding of them; and to base his disagreement on the the arguments rather than the real or imagined motivations of the messenger.
Over 375 episodes of Firing Line have been made available on YouTube by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. You can find complete episodes on Hoover’s YouTube channel here (there are probably more to come), and see their web site for an archive of full programs and transcripts available online.
Buckley didn’t always engage in reasoned debate: he issued many ugly personal and racial attacks in print. He threatened to punch both Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky (jokingly, perhaps). But Firing Line wasn’t only about its host: its success depended also on the format, the audience, and the quality of the discussion and the guests. Take the few examples here. At the top of the post, Buckley discusses the Vietnam War with Chomsky. The latter may be incapable of raising his voice, but notice also Buckley’s cool exterior. While his genteel mannerisms rubbed many the wrong way, whether or not we like his demeanor, he consistently employs methods of clarification and argumentation rather than personal attack (stray threats of punching aside).
Nowhere in evidence is the current style of screaming over guests with whom the host disagrees. We find similar receptiveness in Buckley’s interview with Allen Ginsberg, and even with Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, whom Buckley obvious finds distasteful, and whose violent rhetoric and violent past may warrant the reaction in many people’s estimation. Nevertheless, even in this extreme case, we see how the discussion tracks along in such a way that viewers actually learn something about the views on offer. Some may be unable to countenance either participant’s ideas, and yet may come still away from the exchange examining the basis of their own position.
Buckley didn’t only debate politics. As in his interview with Ginsberg, many of his foils were literary figures, and many of them primarily discussed writing. Firing Line brought us great television like the discussions further up with Jorge Luis Borges, with Eudora Welty and Walker Percy above, and, below, with Norman Mailer. The show ran from 1966 to 1999 and owed much of its prestige to the two public television stations—from New Jersey and South Carolina, respectively—who hosted it and allowed for its rarified audience.
Though it may not have been widely viewed, Firing Line’s influence resonated widely in its impact on other cultural figures and venues. Granted, we see Buckley’s biases on display. Make what you will of the fact that—although the period of the show’s airing saw at least two waves of feminism—Buckley rarely interviewed women unless they already agreed with him. On the whole, however, throughout the show’s 33-year run its host listened to, engaged honestly with, and attempted to understand other points of view.