Crossing Which Line?

The recent firing of Juan Williams by NPR, and the way in which it was announced and justified,  has created a sometimes fraught discussion around freedom and responsibility in journalism. Much of this is related specifically to the fact that his comments related to attitudes toward Muslims in America. And this might lead us to ask about just which line he crossed that led to his firing, and just where the lines in public discourse should be.

First let me note that Mr. Williams was paid by NPR under certain conditions, one of which was that he not publicly display a bias, or apparent bias, that would damage NPR’s interests. When he didn’t meet those conditions they fired him. Aside from the public interest in Mr. Williams what happened could have happened, and happens regularly, to people in many different jobs. Realistically the one freedom of speech that most of us do not have is to publicly damage the felt interests of our employers.

Next let’s ask just what line he crossed in relating how he feels when he sees Muslims in what he called “Muslim garb” in an airplane. Mr Williams claims (at least in the interview I heard on the Diane Reems show on NPR) that he his statement did not show bigotry, but was simply an honest relating of his feelings. Others have said that by definition fear of people because of their appearance is bigotry, however honest one is about it.

I’m not sure that bigotry is the issue. Rather it is the nature of persuasive, political speech. For several decades now Americans have increasingly seen the honest public expression of their feelings as an near absolute right. The same is true of their opinions. This sense of entitlement with regard to the public expression of feelings is validated by the media’s closely focused attention on the “mood” of both the nation as a whole and its many subgroups. A great deal of reporting is about what people are feeling rather than what they are doing or thinking. The assumption seems to be that elections will be determined by the mood or feelings of the electorate rather than their rational consideration of their best interests. And this may be true.

If it is true, then we need to take seriously the possibility that the expression of feelings is as politically persuasive as putting forward rational arguments. In other words expressing one’s feelings in public isn’t just personal self-expression. It is a political act that influences the ways that others act politically. And of course we know this. Politicians make persuasive use of emotional expression all the time. What we need to recognize is that the expression of emotion as a political act happens whether it is done by a journalist, a pastor, a school teacher, a professor, a corporate leader, a talk show host, or anyone else appearing in public. When we show our feelings in public about people and issues we are engaging in politics.

And this is why expressing your feelings in public can be crossing the line. Not because we don’t have a right to our feelings. Nor because we don’t have a right to express them. Nor even because they may reveal something unpleasant or socially unacceptable about us. But because when we express our feelings we do influence others to feel the same way, and thus possibly to act as we act. Whether it is outrage or sadness or panic or fear or joy or glee, feelings put forward in the public forum, whether verbalized or not, are one of many forms of political persuasion. And that is acceptable in some forums, and not acceptable in others.

If we don’t recognize this then I’m afraid many of us will be unaware, as Mr. Williams appears to have been, when we have crossed the line.

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