Shrinking middle ground
The author is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Today, we are forced to make a choice between “like” and “dislike.” A series of bills to protect tenants was passed in the National Assembly by 186 votes, while no one voted against it. After the head of the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) said the president, elected with 41 percent of votes, doesn’t necessarily represent the opinions of all people, he is forced to make a choice between keeping the job or resigning.
The justice minister dismisses a lawmaker’s suspicion about the relations between her son’s alleged privileges during his military service and her decision to promote a senior prosecutor as the vice justice minister as “fiction.” Despite insults hurled at one another, there was no discussion between ruling and opposition party lawmakers. Prosecutors, who are supposed to maintain order, are brawling with one another. Because there is no middle ground, everything turns to the extreme. Discussion and arbitration only exist in the section about democracy in a political science textbook.
According to a research team from Cornell University, an adult makes an average of 35,000 conscious choices. Among them are 227 choices made about eating foods. Whether you drink soup first and which side dish you will eat next are all choices.
Another study says an average person makes 773,618 “important decisions” during his or her life, and regrets about one fifth of them. Because a brain is a complex organ of cells, disagreements are natural.
One combined framework to facilitate mutual existence is democracy and a capitalist, market economy. But these two axes are shaken in our country. More worrisome than disagreements and conflicts is that the arena of open discussions and access to information are increasingly being blocked.
A recent debate over the past two months, triggered by the New York Times, makes us revisit the importance of disagreements and open discussions. The debate was triggered by the op-ed piece “Send in the Troops,” written by contributor Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, for the newspaper’s June 3 edition. In the piece, Cotton argued that military troops should be mobilized to suppress demonstrations triggered by the killing of George Floyd.
After fierce protests flooded social media, about 800 New York Times reporters signed in protest. A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the newspaper, called for an internal town hall meeting. Sulzberger said that when readers read an op-ed piece in a printed edition, they read it with context. But in the digital era, it will be hard for readers to understand that an outside contribution doesn’t represent the opinion of the New York Times, he confessed.
Sulzberger said the controversy was stirred by a willingness to present something to talk about, as the newspaper used to do in its printed editions. He said it was “muscle memory” from the habits of opinion and publishing that date back to the print era.
Following the incident, James Bennet resigned from his job as the editorial page editor of the Times. “The essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published,” the editor’s note said.
About 280 journalists from the Wall Street Journal protested an op-ed piece contributed by Vice President Mike Pence, who argued that there will not be a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. They sent a letter of protest to the publisher demanding a clearer distinction between news and opinion content.
Stan Wischnowski, a top editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, resigned a few days after an article in the newspaper about the effects of protests on the urban landscape carried the headline “Buildings Matter, Too.”
The established media is feeling the power of social media. New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss sent an open letter of resignation. “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” she wrote. “If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.”
The controversy escalated by Weiss’s characterization of the situation as a “civil war inside The New York Times between the [mostly young] wokes the [mostly 40+] liberals.” She concluded her letter by quoting Adolph Ochs’s 1896 statement: “to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”
About 150 opinion leaders, including J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyam, Roger Cohen, David Brooks, Fareed Zakaria and Malcolm Gladwell, published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine.
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty,” they wrote.
“We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other,” they also wrote.
Although verified arguments are important, it is important to introduce different opinions. Offering various thoughts and perspectives to citizens in a democracy is the duty of scholars, writers and the media. If we do not want to live one fifth of our lives with regret, we need to expand this middle ground.