Last month, I was chatting with somebody who, upon finding out that I went to MIT, asked me if I had ever taken a class with Noam Chomsky. I said that I hadn’t, but I’d read a couple of his books, so he asked me what I thought of them. I said something like “I think he’s a little bit too extreme”, which he pressed me to explain. Apparently, he was a big fan of Chomsky, and noted that Chomsky was able to document everything that he claimed, so he was just being a scholar, not an extremist. And I agree that his scholarship is generally impeccable, so I wasn’t really able to clarify what I meant at the time.
After thinking about it some more, I think the problem I have with Chomsky’s approach is that he’s a true believer. And as a true believer, he tends to demonize his enemies, looking for ways to discredit them, calling them names, etc. I typed “Noam Chomsky terrorist” into google and turned up this talk, which demonstrates this tendency. While I actually agree with his viewpoint, I don’t think that it’s productive to call Reagan and his staff international terrorists. All it does is immediately polarize the discussion, and reduce it to a political firefight. And I don’t believe anything productive can come of that.
We have all made choices and decisions about what kind of person we are, and we believe those choices are the right ones. We can’t help but think that. Nobody can be perfectly fair-minded and accept all viewpoints equally. So we take our sides and we entrench them. The problem arises when we are so blinded by our biases that we can’t accept input from the other side that might change our minds. And rantings like Chomsky’s only make it easier to ignore all input from the liberal side, just like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage make it easy to ignore input from the conservative side. So these voices are leading us towards ideological fortresses, walled off from outside influences, where we only get information that we already agree with. I’m thinking of talk radio and Fox News for the right wing, and NPR and the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly for the left wing. And that’s the wrong direction to move. But it’s so tempting because nobody likes conflict, nobody likes argument, so just hanging out with people you agree with is so comforting that it’s hard to get out there and deal with the abuse of the other side. So we don’t.
And that’s why I dislike Chomsky’s approach. Rather than try to open up a dialogue with the other side, he gets so angry that he shuts them out and treats them as implacable monsters that are out to destroy people. But the important thing to remember is that nobody is evil in their own minds. They can’t be. They have their reasons for what they’re doing, and they believe in them very strongly. They may have a twisted perspective that is inconceivable to the outsider, but in their own minds, they think they’re doing the right thing. And treating them as monsters will only convince them that you’re a monster yourself, and then we’re back in our ideological fortresses throwing metaphorical Molotov cocktails at each other (or in the case of Palestine and Israel, real explosives).
To make progress, you have to have a flexible enough mind to be able to simulate others’ perspectives, at least enough to open a line of dialogue, to put things in terms that they will understand, to seek avenues of compromise. And we need more people that are willing to do that on the stage of punditry. Unfortunately, it’s not encouraged. Pundits are hired to be outrageous, to grow ever more intolerant in their abuse of their opponents, because that increases ratings (as described in Breaking the News (my brief review) or News and the Culture of Lying (my brief review)). So moderates that are trying to reach compromises and move towards consensus lose their voices and their platform in the media. And I don’t know what to do about that.
The only thing I can do is continue to read what I can from both sides, discounting the more inflammatory material, but seeing whether I can come to my own conclusions and my own mental compromises about which ideas to take from which sides. Not just in politics, but in all areas of life. I’m the type of person who likes playing devil’s advocate, not because I necessarily disagree, but just to practice being able to think differently and argue the other side. By doing so, it helps me understand why somebody would take that position, and which of their values that might reflect, and that gives me an avenue for understanding how I can communicate with them if I have to. Of course, the fact that I like arguing all the time makes me somewhat of a pain to hang around with as well. But anyway…
So that’s my long-belated answer to what bugs me about Chomsky. Now I finally have it in my head for next time, which, alas, will probably never come. Ah well…