WordPress bloggers were challenged to write about this question just before the Fourth of July. About the same time, before the Fourth, Krista Tippett, host of the PBS program “On Being”, rebroadcast a 2003 interview with philosopher and polymath Jacob Needleman about “The Inward Work of Democracy.”
Well, I never process quickly — stuff has to marinate in my mind for a while — but eventually I get there. Or rather, I got here, today. What Jacob Needleman said about freedom that spoke to me loudest and clearest was this:
“A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It’s a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if … I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that’s not so simple. It doesn’t mean just to stop my talking and wait till you’re finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that’s what we’re speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?”
Now these few sentences could stand a little thinking about, to be clear about what he’s saying. So if you have just a couple of minutes, indulge me, and read it again. And think about it, and the state of public discourse today, and the political realities of our troubled nation. And now, I want to tell you a little story about something that happened to me, oh, about a decade ago.
I was a campus minister at Fordham University at Lincoln Center. The priest in charge of Campus Ministry that year was new. He was a Jesuit, which isn’t always the case at a Jesuit University, and he was also a black man, which is rarely the case with American Jesuits. At one midday homily, brief, as always, Jim challenged those attending Mass this way (not his exact words, rather my memory of the sense of his words):
“We’re all people of good will here, and so I know you’ll listen to me with good will, and you’ll be tolerant of what I say. But that isn’t enough. What’s really necessary is for you to listen to me as if what I’m saying is normative. That what I’m saying might actually be the way things are, not what you might think it is.
“I’m not saying you have to change your mind! Let me be clear about that. I just want you to consider what I have to say with that level of seriousness: that my perceptions might be right, and yours wrong. You’ll hear me in a different way if you’re able to do that, just for now.
“I know what I’m asking scares people a whole lot. To look at things maybe upside down. But it’s the only way that change can come into this world, and into people’s hearts and minds, if we’re able to imagine that another person’s experiences are as valuable and true and important as our own.”
I don’t remember what else, if anything he said — because that idea just blew my mind apart. One way or another I think I’ve been considering it ever since. When I can. Because Jim was right, it’s one of the scariest things we can do, and frankly, I’m not up for it all the time. But I knew he was right the instant I heard him say it, and I’ve never changed my mind about that.
So when I find Jacob Needleman saying essentially the same thing over national radio — well, I’m going to listen up. And I wonder, wistfully, what might happen to the political life of the United States if enough people were courageous enough to do the same?
Not “I the People”, but WE The PEOPLE!