*For Jerry Engle*
Jerry Engle has published a helpful letter in The Norton-Lakeshore Examiner. He opens it by praising Editor Price for her, “remarkably interesting, diverse and usually balanced Examiner.” He then criticizes the paper’s political column, “which,” he says, “can only be described as the complete antithesis of balanced.” Mr. Engle concludes with the constructive suggestion that Editor Price begin a new column, “to restore the balance.”
I agree with Mr. Engle on every point: Muskegonites really are indebted to Editor Price for her fine local paper; and a new column is just what is needed to balance the opinions of its current political writer. I have just one thing to add: a recommendation that this new column be done a particular way—one designed to overcome what Mr. Engle calls, “the current dysfunctional extremes of both left and right.”
Hello everyone, I’m “Dr. Why”: second author of one of the Examiner columns Mr. Engle didn’t mention (a group so mentionable as to include Tanya Cabala’s fabulous Environmentally Speaking). I’m joined by my friend and mentor, “Dr. X.”
Thank you for joining us, Dr. X.
X: Thanks for your invitation, Dr. Why.
Y: You know why I invited you, of course?
X: To help you promote our column, I suppose. I am right to assume that your vision for the new political column is inspired by Getting to Know Why?
Y: You are.
X: And that you intend, by exposing the rationale behind some of GTKW’s peculiar features, to recommend them for the new column?
Y: I do. Even better, by discussing them together, we’ll show them in action.
X: Ingenious, Why. Shall we get to it?
Y: Certainly, Dr. X. I’d like to begin by dialoguing with you about one of GTKW’s key features.
X: Um, dialogue?
Y: That’s the one. It’s also key to the new political column I envision. Which is why I ask: Why did you choose dialogue for GTKW?
X: Numerous reasons, Why, including marketability. I hope to tap the current rage for voyeuristic television.
Y: You think of GTKW as a sort of reality show in print?
X: Why not? It enables our audience to “watch” as we gamble ourselves over important hazards of common interest.
Y: Written dialogue has been around a lot longer than reality TV, Dr. X.
X: Yes, but gladiatorial spectacles are even older. And dialogue isn’t used much by academics, outside of literature. It’s much easier to write in dull academic prose.
Y: One reason why it’s hard to beat Plato!
X: Galileo gave us science in dialogue, Why.
Y: And who could forget the great George Berkeley? But let’s return to our topic, Dr. X. So far we’ve uncovered one good reason to employ dialogue: it hooks like a gladiator. Why else did you use it?
X: Primarily to bring balance to the project, obviously.
Y: That’s the reason I was looking for.
X: Of course. One of GTKW’s main themes is religion, and religion is an extremely volatile subject: it tends to inflame passions and produce sharp opposition—
Y: It’s also extremely important and vastly harder to consider responsibly than most people imagine—
X: —and its volatility increases exponentially in contact with science—
Y: —as does its importance and the challenge of considering it responsibly.
X: So when Editor Price first invited me to write a science-and-religion column for The Examiner, I was reluctant; I knew I shouldn’t do it on my own. Naturally, I prefer my own perspective; but engaging others helps me think my viewpoint through, helps me improve it, extend it, and learn how to express it. I sometimes even correct it.
Y: And you might one day reject it?
X: But I can do none of these things very well alone. They require the company of a strong and sharply opposed dialogue partner. I therefore made my column ours.
Y: It isn’t mere dialogue that’s key here, but dialogue between sharply opposed individuals?
X: I certainly think so. Dialogue allows us to draw in two sharply opposed sides of an audience and get each engaging the other, thereby overcoming the strong preference we all exhibit for the company of those who think as narrowly as we do.
Y: Thereby overcoming the dysfunctional extremes of left and right. I’m with you so far, Dr. X. But even dialogue fails sometimes.
X: It fails when would-be conversationalists get in the way of their own would-be conversations. Which brings us to a second key feature of GTKW.
X: Strict anonymity. You and I have multiple reasons to keep GTKW anonymous, including the fact that it’s biographical—
X: —and that we’ll discuss some matters that could hurt you if your identity was widely known. But to my mind, the primary value of anonymity is that it gets the ego out of the way, making it easier to listen carefully, acknowledge another’s contributions, confess ignorance, backpedal, apologize, and do many other things that come harder when we attach our names to our words.
Y: Which is why I recommend that the new political column be anonymous.
X: Anonymity is also wonderfully liberating, Why. Scholars and statesmen often withhold important information and opinions for fear that they’d express them at the cost of their careers.
Y: As do scientists.
X: Perhaps so. In any event, we speak freely under cover of anonymity, which means that we’re more likely to say whatever needs to be said.
Y: And that it’s more likely to be heard.
X: But the anonymity has to be strict to work. Tell a friend you’re writing an anonymous column and your “anonymity” ceases to be fully liberating. Which is why I’ve told no one about my involvement in GTKW, why Editor Price has sworn herself to secrecy, and why you—
Y: Should be more careful. Does GTKW have any other shortcomings?
X: It certainly does: I shouldn’t be editing it.
Y: But you’re a wonderful editor, Dr. X! You’re always faithful to my intentions and use my actual words whenever possible; you’re careful to consult me when necessary; you share creative control, and you won’t go to print without my approval—
X: Thank you, Why. But the public requires a greater guarantee of editorial neutrality in the political column you envision. It would be easily achieved with a team of three: two sharply opposed authors and one disinterested editor, all strictly anonymous. The two authors could argue publicly over a particular issue for an appointed period on an online forum, the archive of which constitutes source material from which the editor, endowed with the power of poetic license, selects informative and entertaining synopses to print.
Y: I like it. So the elements of what I call the XY format, which I’m recommending for the new political column, include sharply opposed viewpoints in dialogue, strict anonymity, and third-party editing. Anything else?
X: It’s more a system or method than a format, Why: a system for producing well-balanced and otherwise fit texts. In any case, it shouldn’t be done for free. Neither should GTKW, of course; but political discourse is more obviously for the public benefit than our discussions are, and quality always costs somebody a lot. A project like yours should therefore be well funded.
Y: The Examiner can’t pay unless it sells much more advertising, Dr. X.
X: Then I hereby appeal to your readers! Ladies and gentlemen, it’s in your own best interests to promote healthy political discourse—
Y: Thanks, Dr. X.
X: Perhaps Editor Price could set up an fund for it.
Y: Yes, thank you, Dr. X.
X: Come to think of it, perhaps she could do the same for GTKW, valuable as it is.
Y: Thank you very much, Dr. X, for helping me recommend your XY text-determination system for the new political column. And even for taking advantage of this opportunity to shamelessly promote Getting to Know Why!
X: Be sure to join us for our next installment!
Y: And thanks very much for joining us this time, dear readers!