Op-Ed: Get Out Of Your Political Comfort Zone

Read Danny Heitman's Christian Science Monitor op-ed "Seek the Other Side in Political Commentary"

Online news, blogs and social media tools have made it easier to weed out sources that don't reflect one's own political views. In an election season, consumers may be more tempted to stay within their media "echo chambers." If that's your habit, columnist Danny Heitman urges you to reconsider.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

The proliferation of media outlets - online, on air and in print - make it easier and easier to read or listen to only those sources you agree with: the left or right, green or vegan or free-market echo chamber. If that's your habit, columnist Danny Heitman urges you to reconsider. He's been listening to the devil's advocate for decades now. And if you think you'll just end up infuriated, Heitman says you might end up actually enjoying it. So tell us: Who's the columnist or pundit or broadcaster who most challenges your thinking?

800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Danny Heitman's a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate and a frequent contributor to several national publications. His piece "Seek the Other Side in Political Commentary" appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. And he joins us today from member station WRKF in Baton Rouge. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

DANNY HEITMAN: Good afternoon, Neal. And happy belated New Year's to you.

CONAN: And happy belated New Year's. This is your New Year's resolution from what, about 1970?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HEITMAN: Well, as luck would have it, I'm 48 years old today, and this is something I got into when I was 18 years old. So we're going on three decades, here.

CONAN: Happy birthday.

HEITMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Three decades, as I understand it from your piece, it began watching William Buckley on "Firing Line."

HEITMAN: Yes. And I'm dating myself, but that was about 30 years ago. I was bored one Sunday afternoon. There was little to watch on TV, and I happened upon William F. Buckley's "Firing Line" on TV. And what really struck me about the show was that even though Buckley was an ardent conservative, he would have liberals on and - quite frequently, and he would give them free rein. And they seemed to have a really good time, and Buckley didn't really seem to be bothered by this.

And what I got from that is that here's a guy who was confident enough in his own opinions that he could indulge the views of people with which he vigorously disagreed. And I thought that was a pretty good habit to cultivate. And so I've tried to do that over the past 30 years or so, just go seek other opinions with which you might disagree. And I do that on my editorial page that I read each day. And, you know, what I've really benefited, I think, the - I think the thing that's benefitting me the most is surprise. I'm constantly surprised, because I'm kind of getting out of my comfort zone a little bit. So...

CONAN: You know, that's interesting. For those who don't remember, William F. Buckley would have people he disagreed with on, but would give them rein, treat them politely. He would disagree with them, but he would not bash them.

HEITMAN: That's true. You know, and that's something we don't see on TV very much anymore. My daughter's a teenager now, but a few years ago, when she was a toddler, she went through the living room while I was watching C-SPAN, and she said, daddy, you're watching C-SPAN again. And I said I am. How did you know it's C-SPAN? And she said: It's one person talking, and nobody is yelling at him. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HEITMAN: ...that really - the fact that it stood out for her so vividly that that was the exception rather than the rule on TV, that really impressed me, and I guess depressed me a little bit, too. So...

CONAN: So, over the years, you've said all of this reading left, right, up, down, green, vegan, libertarian, elsewise has turned you into a raging moderate.

HEITMAN: That's true. You know, I guess whenever you consult both sides of the political aisle, you realize that neither the right nor the left has all the answers. And, you know, in my op-ed piece that I wrote for the Monitor, I mentioned John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher writing all the way back in the 19th century, and he said: The only way to know the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. And that's John Stuart Mill writing in the 19th century, and what he said back then is even more true today, I think. It's really important that we consult a variety of views.

You know, we talk a lot in the beginning of the year about resolving to diet better, to eat a greater variety of good food. And it's important that we have a rich, intellectual diet too. And I think that's really what my op-ed was all about, was encouraging people to really indulge a varied intellectual diet.

CONAN: And in response, I suspect, to some you wrote about in your piece, too, who object not just to an opinion, but to having someone in your newspaper or wherever, giving them space to express that opinion.

HEITMAN: That's true. You know, I am just so privileged to have such great readers in Baton Rouge for our local paper, the Baton Rouge Advocate. And I'm always instructed by them and edified by them. And we have a lot of really smart readers. I am disturbed, though, by a number of readers who do call from time to time, and they question not only someone's opinion, but their right to express it, you know, in the newspaper. They think, well, you know, I don't agree with that, and so, therefore, it shouldn't really be present in my community newspaper. And that's really - I don't think that's healthy for our democracy.

And I think both liberals and conservatives really need to acknowledge that there are going to be folks that you disagree with, but you don't have anything to lose by giving them a forum and by listening to them from time to time. You might even learn something.

CONAN: We're asking callers to tell us who's the devil's advocate they most enjoy. I have to begin by asking you, Danny Heitman, who are the people who mostly - most consistently surprise you?

HEITMAN: Well, you know, I think anybody who's read my writings over time would agree that as an editorial writer, I'm a pretty consistent advocate of the free market. But one of the folks in college when I first read him that I really learned a lot from was Karl Marx oddly enough. I mean, you know, his "Das Kapital," he writes very tellingly about some of the spiritual emptiness that you can feel by doing work that is not fulfilling. And that's really something that, whether you're a conservative or a liberal, I think anybody has felt that from time to time. And you might disagree with his prescriptions for that, but his diagnosis was really spot on. And I think that's an example of how you can really learn a lot from people with which you think that you might have absolutely nothing in common with, so.

CONAN: An important lesson to not just rely on the op-ed page or the broadcast whatever is on cable TV or on the radio, but the library also has some pretty good people with opinions, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HEITMAN: Sure. You know, Cal Thomas, he's a conservative columnist, and I would say, probably, about 80 percent of what Cal writes, I don't agree with. But I continue to read him for that 20 percent of the time when he really shakes me awake and gives me a fresh insight. The other day, he had a great column in which he was talking about the perils of mixing religion and politics. And he actually talked about that with some sense of caution that maybe it's not the best thing to mix religion and politics. That's not a view that one often hears from a conservative, but it points out, I think, the value of continuing to consult people which you think you might disagree, so.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the conversation. Joe is with us from Lansing, Michigan.

JOE: Speaking of mixing politics and religion, the original contrarian and an actual devil's advocate, Christopher Hitchens - it's bad that he's gone - but, boy, talk about a guy who'd make you want to tear your hair out sometimes. But you just couldn't put him down or stop listening to him.

CONAN: We do miss him dearly, Joe. And you're right. You could also wait a few months, and he might argue the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOE: Yeah. Touche, touche.

CONAN: And brilliantly both times.

HEITMAN: Right. I really enjoyed the mention of Christopher Hitchens, you know, and he had a kind of a forebear in H. L. Mencken, who was a very iconoclastic journalist from the 1920s who just generated tremendous amounts of hate mail. And Mencken would send a form letter to folks who call - who wrote him to complain. The form letter said, dear sir or madam. You may or may not be right. And I thought that was a pretty clever way of deflecting criticism, but it was also an acknowledgment on Mencken's part that, hey, you know, I don't agree with you, but, hey, you might be right. And it's not often that we hear that in our culture these days, an acknowledgement of the other side just might have a point.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Michael. Michael with us from San Antonio.

MICHAEL: Yes. I guess, the political pundit that I have the hardest time listening to is Glenn Beck, mainly because we have the same faith tradition. And a lot of times, he incorporates parts of his faith and talking about providence and did not really mixed in with politics, and that always rubs me the wrong way, especially because I don't like his representing my faith all that well. And being that it is Mitt Romney and the, you know...

CONAN: Well, Michael, you may have misunderstood the question as I posed it. It's the one...

MICHAEL: OK.

CONAN: ...you disagree with the most, the one on you read on the other side who most challenges your thinking, the one who surprises you from time to time.

MICHAEL: Oh, I guess I did misunderstand the question so sorry. I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: All right. Thanks, Michael. Appreciate it. And he might be along the lines of Cathy(ph), who writes us from Boone, North Carolina: I try to listen to Fox News with the idea of knowing you're enemy, but I have blood pressure issues and tend to get so exasperated, I usually wind up shouting, what's wrong with you, at the radio. So doing so might be hazardous to my health. A lot of people can get pretty exercised no matter whether they're exercised at the right or the left.

HEITMAN: Well, gosh. I certainly wouldn't want Cathy to have a stroke, but maybe moderation is the key. Maybe do it incrementally, you know, maybe that's the key here.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to Jerry(ph). Jerry with us from Oklahoma City.

JERRY: Yeah. I'm what you would probably call a social moral conservative, and it's probably not a demographic that listens exclusively to NPR, which I do. But I think what our - by and large forgotten that we can disagree in America, and that it's good to gain other people's viewpoints.

CONAN: Good to gain other people's viewpoints. Were you - in your piece, Danny Heitman, you also cite the philosopher who says, you can benefit by either finding out your opponent is wrong or correcting your own views, or maybe even better, learning that you can correct his.

HEITMAN: Oh, that's true. And that was John Stuart Mill again. Another guy that I really like to quote is Jim Leach who is a former Republican congressman. He's now working for the National Endowment for the Humanities as its director. And in an op-ed back in 2010, Mr. Leach says, we really need to reclaim a brand of politics that is spirited but not mean-spirited. Gosh, I wish I had said that because that really hits the nail in the head, doesn't it? That we can have very spirited disagreements, but they don't have to be mean-spirited.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much. I wanted to read this email from Mary: I used to live in Alexandria, Virginia. I would read The Washington Post, and I enjoyed it because I agreed with their editorial opinions, but I intentionally read The Herald frequently to exercise my brain. It was good to think, why do I disagree with that? Sadly, I am now in a one-newspaper town. And that's the fact for too many of us, I think.

HEITMAN: Yeah, that is a shame, you know? But I guess on the plus side, we do have a greater opportunity for sampling a diverse menu of opinions because of the rise of the Internet. And there's just so much rich media content out there. Of course, I'm a big champion of newspapers, and I hope we continue to have newspapers around for a long time. But the good news is with the Internet and also with the diversity of the cable spectrum, we really can consult a great variety of political opinions, can't we?

CONAN: You can read Danny Heitman's opinions in the Baton Rouge Advocate and find his piece from the Christian Science Monitor "Seek the Other Side of Political Commentary" at a link at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Danny Heitman joined us today from member station WRKF in Baton Rouge. Thanks very much for your time today.

HEITMAN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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