Every available surface in my house is draped with magazines, newspapers and books. If you look on my kitchen table, you will see The Toronto Star and the New York Times dissected into its sections and strewn from one end to the other. Walk over to the Noguchi (not the real designer, just a rip-off) glass table in our living room, and there are recent issues of The Economist, The New Yorker and the Walrus. Upstairs, in our bedroom, the bedside table on “my” side houses titles like Against Love. On “his” side you will find books such as: Torture, Power and Law.
What does all of this paper have in common?
Well, it definitely represents our relatively “progressive” values and the type of reading we enjoy. And, that’s a problem according to Pamela Paul in her recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Her article, “The Joy of Hate Reading,” is a compelling argument for why you should read authors you can’t stand. In her case, she forced herself to read “every wretched page” of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead.
Why is this a good thing, to waste precious time reading stuff you hate?
According to Paul, we have become siloed into narrow sources of information so reading what we hate helps us be clearer about what we value, and why. “Arguing with an author in your head forces you to gather opposing evidence,” she writes and like debaters “sometimes you figure out your position only in opposition.” Reading stuff we hate helps us to challenge our assumptions, and to be more forceful about our conclusions.
So, last night I thought I’d give this a shot. I logged onto Breitbart (please don’t hate me). I forced myself to read Ann Coulter. I hate Ann Coulter, I really do. And she scares me because she is smart (can’t deny her that) and a powerful Trump advocate. She also has an enviable following (1.4 million Twitter followers) which truly sucks for our world.
It was pure torture reading her but I got through it. Warning: If you’ve just eaten, you may not want to read this excerpt from her latest column – “Lassie Come Home” – about why Trump should not have bombed Syria:
“Assad is one of the least bad leaders in the entire Middle East. He’s not a murderous thug like Saddam, has no rape rooms, isn’t into jihad, protects Christians, and is fighting ISIS. He provided us with intelligence on al-Qaida after 9/11. He does not have crazy Islamic police slapping women around or throwing gays off buildings. (That would be our beloved ally, Saudi Arabia.)”
I concede that I would lose a debate with Coulter, as many of us would. It took me a while to collect my thoughts about what is so appallingly wrong with her point of view. Was it that she was comparing an “alive” dictator to a dead one like Saddam, and doesn’t actually say who is a worse leader than Assad? Was it that she doesn’t consider the conditions in Syrian prisons, like electrocution to genitals, as bad as “rape rooms”? Or, is it that she is hinting that Syria is a relatively progressive country because of their inclusivity around women and gay people. Actually, their penal code prohibits “carnal relations against the order of nature”, and these relationships can lead to imprisonment. But I had to look that up, rather than take Coulter at face value. And, that’s my point.
In order to be able to advance sound opinion, one must be informed and know how the “other” side thinks and whether their claims are accurate or just B.S. The majority of my friends think like me (that’s why we’re friends) so we agree with each other about Trump, and just about everything else. We are really good at patting each other on the back.
These are scary times and preaching to the choir won’t have nearly as much impact as engaging (and hopefully influencing) people who think Trump is the best thing since sliced bread and America’s saviour. But we can only do this if we really know our facts, and can make better arguments than them.
Yes, reading Brietbart and people like Coulter feels like sticking pins in my eyes. But if it makes me see things sharper, it will be worth the pain.
Photo credit: Eugenio Mazzone (from Unsplash)
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