Dave Weigel and the Myth of the Opinionless Man

Dave Weigel and the Myth of the Opinionless ManThe problem in the cases of ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal and ousted Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel is not that they had opinions. Of course, they had opinions. Indeed, we should damned well want them to have opinions. If they each only accepted what they were told without doubts and complaints, without discrimination, they’d each be be very bad at their jobs, wouldn’t they?

The problem is not that those opinions were reported. Publicness – transparency, openness, authenticity, honesty – is good. It should lead to more trust. But here it didn’t. It led to public disgrace. Why?

The problem, then, is our myth of the opinionless man*.

I don’t think that is society’s myth. We all know better than to believe that men have no beliefs – because we are all merely men* with beliefs of our own.

No, the opinionless man is an institutional myth, a fiction maintained by news organizations, political organizations, governments, businesses, churches, and armies. The opinionless man is meant to be an empty vessel to do the bidding of these hierarchies. But opinions and openness about them subvert hierarchies. Or to translate that to modern times, via the Cluetrain Manifesto, links subvert hierarchies. This is the age of links. So hierarchies: beware. One opinion leaks out of the opinionless man and it is shared and linked and spread instantly. The institutions treat this revelation as a shock and scandal – as a threat – and they eject the opinionated men. That is what happened to McChrystal and Dave Weigel.

In my thinking for my book on publicness, I keep trying to look at such fears and offenses and turn them around to ask what they say not about the scandalous but instead about the scandalized – about us and about our myths and realities.

Former Washington Post editor Len Downie was the self-drawn archetype of the opinionless man. He famously refused to vote, thinking it somehow made him immune from opinions and their corruption of his journalism. That heritage is what led to Dave Weigel’s ejection from the Post. But as Liz Mairargues (via @jayrosen_nyu), it’s ridiculous to assume that Weigel should accept and agree with everyone and and everything he encountered on his beat covering conservatives. He should be skeptical. Isn’t that a reporter’s job? And what is the source of that skepticism but opinions? We want to know.

Mayhill Fowler wrote a superb HuffingtonPost piece – inspired by McChrystal and her own experience in the Obama campaign – about journalism as a dance of seduction and betrayal. The corrupting temptation isn’t sex or beauty or wealth or even fame but access. Her perspective is so valuable because she came to journalism and politics as an outsider and maintained that perspective.

Michael Walsh, however, speaks for the institutions as he blows his vuvuzela until he’s red-faced warning of the dangers of such openness:

But the most important thing to emerge from this mess is the notion of privacy, that there is a difference between on and off the record, and it simply must be observed unless freedom of speech – and thus of thought – is irrevocably chilled. For decades, reporters have observed the distinction between what is meant for public consumption and what is spoken of behind closed doors. The principle is not only enshrined in journalism, but in the government: “executive privilege,” however at times abused, is vital to the decision-making process, and freewheeling (if often “offensive”) conversation and characterizations are part of that process. If we have arrived at a point where we literally have to watch every word we speak, than we are no better than North Korea or the former East Germany. Somewhere, Gen. McChrystal is smiling…

Still, the days when “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail” are long gone, and in cyberspace any utterance, no matter how “private,” is now potentially public – and potentially career-ending. That’s the real lesson from the Weigel flap: in the war of ideas in cyberspace, truth is no longer the first casualty. Trust is.

Whoa, boy*. I think exactly the opposite: that privacy for government and those who cover it is exactly what we do not need, exactly what we are working to eliminate with sunshine and publicness. Journalists should have been the ones opening the drapes on those dark rooms but they didn’t because they were seduced by their invitations in. So outsiders are forcing them open. Hurrah. Privacy is what protects the tyrants of North Korea and East Germany. Transparency is what kills them.

So if we want more transparency – and I believe that we, the people, do even if they, our institutions, often do not – then we must stop going along with the myth of the opinionless man and the scandal of the opinionated man. We should celebrate openness and honesty whenever they manage to break through. We should recognize that – to reform Walsh’s bottom line – transparency leads to trust. We should remind our institutions – government and the journalists who are supposed to cover them – that we expect them to judge and we will respect their actions more if we understand their judgment.

The institutions’ myth of the opinionless man is what is behind their disdain for the internet and its inhabitants – us. Don’t you hear it all the time: Oh, the internet is filled with nothing but opinions, as if opinions – our opinions – were worthless. But opinions and the arguments about them – and, yes, the facts needed to win those arguments – are the basis of decision-making in any organization and in society itself. Opinions are the soil of democracy. Publicness is the sunshine that lets it grow. (/metaphor)

What we’re witnessing in these cases is more than a mere two-day kerfuffle. We are witnessing small evidence of a cultural shift away from the privacy, secrecy, and control that empowered and protected institutions in a centralized, mass society to new cultural norms of publicness. That publicness grants us independence from the powerful; it wrests control from their hands. That is why we are grappling so with questions of privacy and publicness. (That is some of what I am trying to grapple with in my book.)

Alan F. Westin’s influential 1967 book Privacy and Freedom expresses the view of the prior era: “The greatest threat to civilized social life,” he says in his gravest possible terms, “would be a situation in which each individual was utterly candid in his communications with others, saying exactly what he knew or felt at all times.” Well, hasn’t he just described the internet? There we see our emerging social norm of publicness. There we see the war of the private and the public. It’s about more than Facebook photos.

Jürgen Habermas idealized the emergence of the (bourgeois) public sphere of rational discourse in the 18th century as a counterpoint to government authority and he lamented its eventual corruption by media and commercialization. I will argue in my book that perhaps now, in our post-institutional age, we may see his public sphere emerge after all. It’s not going to look idealized for it is built on discourse – on internet opinions – and to those accustomed to the neatness of control by government and media, that looks messy. But if we have faith in our fellow man* then we can at least hope that out of this discourse, rationality may emerge.

In such discourse, the opinionless man is silent. I’d rather hear him.

* You needn’t supply your rant about how I should not use the word “man.” I’m using it unapologetically – well, except for this footnote. I’m using it because there’s nothing wrong with the word man but moreso because if you take every instance of the word “man” in this post and replace it with “men and women” or “persons” or “humans” it would result in awkward English and lose cultural reference. Besides, in this case, we happen to be talking about two men. And I am one myself. I’m unapologetic about that.

: LATER: Matthew Yglesias on having no opinion as make-believe.

Cross posted at Buzzmachine.com

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Jeff Jarvis blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. The author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins 2009), Jarvis is associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at ...read more

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