March 2, 2008 in Opinion

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Reasonable in unreasonable times

Leonard Pitts Jr. The Spokesman-Review
 

Last week, a fellow journalist wrote to ask me for help.

His name is David Tintner, and he’s a senior at Cooper City (Fla.) High South, where he’s the editor of the school paper. Recently, he wrote a column criticizing those who wear what he regards as “an extremely offensive symbol:” the Confederate battle flag. David says a group of students known on campus as “the Redneck Nation” took exception. A gang of them cornered him at lunch to yell at him. They’ve made threats and tried to stare him down.

Despite this, David writes that he “found it really cool that so many people actually read the paper. One kid who usually associates himself with the ‘Rednecks’ actually came up to me and said that after reading my column he put all of his Confederate flag attire away and won’t wear it anymore. However, the rest of the ‘Redneck Nation’ seems to have it in for me now.”

David added: “I’m sure you deal with this sort of thing all of the time. I mean what’s a good opinion piece if it doesn’t make someone mad, right? I was just hoping you could offer a few words of wisdom, I would really appreciate it.”

Dear David:

My first word of wisdom would be: Watch your back. It sounds as if some of the folks you’re dealing with aren’t screwed on too tight. That said, let me offer you some answers to the arguments typically advanced by defenders of this American swastika.

They will tell you the Civil War was not about slavery. Remind them that the president and vice president of the so-called “Confederate States of America” both said it was.

They will tell you that great-great grandpa Zeke fought for the South, and he never owned any slaves. Remind them that it is political leaders – not grunts – who decide whether and why a war is waged.

They will tell you the flag just celebrates heritage. Remind them that “heritage” is not a synonym for “good.” After all, Nazis have a heritage, too.

I wish I could say any of that will do you any good. Problem is, it’s logic and we live in a time where people are less able to accept, understand or respond to logic.

If you approach writing your column as I do mine, you see it as an attempt not to hammer the other side down, but to persuade persuadable minds. Unfortunately, persuadable minds are an endangered species these days. You and I have the misfortune to live in a time and media culture when people think the loudness of the argument matters more than the coherence of it, when threats and intimidation substitute for logic and reason, a time of made-up “facts” and ideological “truth,” a time when critical thinking is a lost art and ignorance is ascendant.

By way of example: I guarantee you the three lines of argument I gave you above will earn me loud rebuke from Confederate flag fetishists. They will insult my ancestry and intelligence, and throw hissy fits of indignation. The one thing they will not be able to do – this matters to me, though it will not matter to them – is refute a single word of what I said.

I tell my column-writing classes that if ever you propound an argument and all the other side can do in response is have a tantrum, you may consider yourself the winner, by default, of that debate. It is, I grant you, small consolation, but I commend it to you anyway. If you insist on trying to be a reasonable person in an unreasonable time, you should get used to small consolations.

You can find another in what you wrote about the young man who disavowed his Confederate gear because of your column. People do still read us; we do still have an effect and, once in a very great while, we can even take credit for change.

And you’re right. That is the very definition of cool.


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