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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

What we aren't

Some years ago, a friend and colleague observed that the industry in which we both worked at the time, Public Broadcasting, defined itself in the negative. If you asked a pubcaster what differentiated public stations from their network counterparts they would say we are non-commercial, not for profit, and not centrally owned. While all that was and is true it is revealing that some saw themselves in that light rather than affirming their virtues. Don’t most of us and most organizations differentiate themselves by pointing out our strengths? Who exactly are you if your sole point of differentiation is what you are not?

The lesson of my colleague’s remark was not lost on me. The way in which we describe ourselves speaks volumes about our world view and our motivation. That negative definition masked an undercurrent of disdain, a sly commentary on the other guys suggesting that being a commercial entity, seeking sustainability, or organizing in a particular way is necessarily a bad thing. It stems from a sentiment that Public Broadcasting was conceived precisely because there was nothing available on commercial TV and radio at the time that served important objectives in providing educational and cultural content. To be clear, most of the folks I met in my years in the industry were intelligent and thoughtful. I don’t for a moment question their motivation but there were those, a minority to be sure, that leaned on tired aphorisms and well-worn statements when put to the task of stating their case, and much of that was built on saying what was wrong with everyone but themselves.

It puts me in mind of the current state of affairs in which political polarization has led to characterizing those of opposing view as demonic, and in some cases has led to violence with the intent of suppressing all disagreement through force. Just days ago a man killed his neighbor because, "He thought he was a Democrat." Whether driven by nationalistic, religious or political conviction—or simply ignorance and disinformation, zealots almost always believe they alone are in the right, and anyone who thinks about or attempts to live a life that departs from their views is----well, undeserving of life. This climate of extremism which is seething in our country—and indeed throughout the world is righteously justified by those who hold such views, they are saving the world after all. It never occurs to them that it is they who are the ones driving it to ruin.

And it is a curious thing that when you try to question someone who holds such views their response is to tell you what they aren’t. It is not about what they stand for because those are platitudes. Saying I am for our country, I am for life, I am for Christianity are statements devoid of meaning—because we do not fundamentally agree on what it means to be for any of those things and the answers in any event are not simple black and white except to those who do not wish or have the faculties to think otherwise.

I live by a simple credo. It is inevitable that humans will disagree—about any and everything. As long as we respect the right to disagree, and as long as we respect the societal and legal bounds designed to protect us from egregious abuse of life and liberty, I have no quarrel with whatever opinions another person may hold. But when someone wants to cram their ideology down my throat by force, condemn me to death because I vote for one party or another, or seek to take away my rights through authoritarian and repressive policies it is no longer politics or a quarrel.

I’ve learned as many others have that there is no dialog, no questioning or process that will lead to rapprochement with zealots. They cannot see me as a fellow human, only as some invention of their fevered imagination, someone they aren’t and therefore someone undeserving of liberty or life. As much as I am incensed by the pandering and inflammatory statements that issue from the mouth of candidates, legislators and officials these days I am weary of the mealy-mouthed defense offered in response. The zealots prevail only because the vast majority of folks remain passive, convinced that when the mob comes for those they deem unworthy they won’t be coming for them. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “we must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall hang separately.”

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