Monday, October 25, 2010

NPR's firing of Juan Williams

If NPR values public deliberation as the highest virtue of a democratic polity, it did its own ideals a disservice last week when it fired Juan Williams without offering a plausible justification why it did so. On October 20, Williams had uttered these fateful words on the O' Reilly Factor:

"... when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Anxiety and worry make for poor public reasons. Quite often discomfort is a facade for prejudice - an emotion that knows no reasonable defense. Some men feel uncomfortable when women speak up in the corporate board room. Some straight men and women feel uncomfortable that they are serving with gays in the military. And some black men feel uncomfortable when they see people dressed up in Muslim garb on airplanes.

Perhaps there is a case that Juan Williams should have been fired because he allegedly harbored xenophobic sentiments, but that was not the official reason why he was let go. Williams was fired because he articulated his discomfort, not because he felt said discomfort.

According to NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, Williams had repeated fallen short of NPR's standards that their news analysts should "avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings."

Notice that nothing was said about either the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Williams' emotional opinions. And so the emotions, though felt, were not addressed, and a learning moment was missed. NPR was indeed being politically correct, but what has not been noted is that its political correctness played to both sides of the ideological spectrum: in censoring Williams' speech, it played to the Left, but in censoring its real reasons for doing so, it played to the Right. As a result NPR’s action impressed no one.

Discomfort is an emotion. And emotions are just manifestations of reasons not yet expressed. Sometimes, when these reasons are legitimate, so are the emotions that come attached to them. Righteous anger, for example. But other times, when these reasons are illegitimate, then the emotions attached to them are necessarily illegitimate. Xenophobia, for example. But if we don't talk about the reasons behind the emotions - which NPR has elected to do - then a learning moment was missed. No doubt, NPR found it difficult to publicly articulate the claim that feeling anxious in the presence of someone in Muslim garb may be a natural, but not a reasonable reaction, because most Americans probably feel such a reflex.

Ironically, that was exactly what Juan Williams was trying to explore in first admitting his emotions. This is because seconds after his emotional confession, Williams returned to reason when responding to O'Reilly's claim that "Muslims attacked us on 9/11," by saying, "Wait, hold on because if you say, wait, Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say first and foremost we've got a problem with Christians. That's crazy." (See full transcript here.)

"I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith," Williams wrote in a statement released by Fox News. This was Williams' point, and though he didn't make it more clearly on the O'Reilly Factor, it was clearly his pedagogical intention.

But NPR, in firing Williams, wasted an opportunity to make such a pedagogical statement. It wrapped up its reasons in faux reasons of journalistic standards and objectivity, and ironically, ended up implicitly endorsing the legitimacy of Williams’ first, emotional, reaction. Indeed, I suspect that Juan Williams was fired because his bosses at NPR were, in turn, uncomfortable that he had articulated his own discomfort. And that is the problem. On reflex knee jerk begot another, but no reasonable explanation followed.

One thing we do know though, is that emotions cannot be bottled up. We either feel them or we don't, and Juan Williams apparently feels them when he sees someone dressed up in Muslim garb. What NPR did, in firing him, was send the emotional message that his emotions were illegitimate. But - and here was their mistake - NPR said nothing about either the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the reasons which provoked Williams' particular emotion reaction.

Emotions indicate the salience and intensity of issues, and they should be addressed even and in fact especially when they are based on bad reasons. NPR pushed a discussion of the legitimacy of these emotions under the carpet by firing Juan Williams under the faux reasons of journalistic objectivity and this is why in one fell swoop they lost both a journalist and a teaching moment. If NPR wanted to be politically correct, it might as well have gone all the way.

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