Keep Calm and
Carry On

MARK THOMPSON
Former CEO, New York Times

THE TIME IS OUT OF JOINT. Shortwave radios once had the names of capital cities etched into their dials. Today, as we turn the knob and tune in to the world, from Damascus to Brussels to Moscow to Washington, the news is almost unrelievedly grim. The problems and differences that confront us may not yet be as catastrophic as those our parents and grandparents lived through, but they can feel more insidious and intractable.

Intolerance and illiberalism are on the rise almost everywhere. Lies go unchecked. Free speech is denied and state repression is returning in countries that even recently seemed on the path of openness. In the Middle East and Africa, and in the streets and suburbs of European cities, the murderous idiocy of religiously inspired nihilism can prove more persuasive than the milquetoast promises of secular democracy. We hear politicians talk. Children drown, starve, are blown to smithereens. The politicians go on talking. At home, boundaries—of political responsibility, mutual respect, basic civility—that seemed relatively secure only a decade ago, are broken by the week. Often it feels as if there’s a nihilistic spirit at work here too, a politics with no positive agenda of its own that seeks only to divide. A hectic rages in our blood.

These disheartening trends have any number of causes. In this book I have argued that the way our public language has changed is an important contributing and exacerbating factor. We’ve traced how a series of developments in politics, media, and technology have combined with advances in our understanding of the levers of linguistic persuasion to boost the immediate impact of political language at the price of depth and comprehensibility. And we’ve explored how an unresolved battle between two post-Enlightenment instincts—naïve and overbearing rationalism and the contrary tendency to overemphasize identity and community, which I called authenticism—has distorted how we think about the language of the public realm.

In the face of this array of negative forces, I pointed to two beacons of hope. The first was the ancient notion that human beings are born with a faculty of practical wisdom, or prudence, which should enable us to discriminate between valid and dubious public language. The second was the prospect of a rhetoric that might one day achieve a new balance of argument, character, and empathy. I used the phrase critical persuasion to describe it—“critical” in that it would consciously address, and submit itself to, its audience’s prudential scrutiny. It would seek to be reasonable rather than rigidly rationalist and, in its proportionate response to the legitimate demands of emotion and identity, would strive for actual truthfulness rather than rhetorical “authenticity.”

But how to get there from here? In chapter 7, we heard George Orwell hoping it was possible to “bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” What could that mean for us?

To read a PDF of the full chapter, click here.

 

Mark Thompson will deliver a talk, "Between a Rock and Hard Place: Securing the Future of Independent Journalism," in conjunction with the Annenberg Lecture Series, on October 13, 5:00-6:30 pm.

Originally published as the concluding chapter of Thompson's 2016 book, Enough Said. To read a PDF of the full chapter, click here.