Conflict and Social Criticism
with Stephanie Lepp
I recently sat down with my old friend Stephanie Lepp, the Executive Producer at the Center for Humane Technology, to talk about, well, me. In the following excerpt from that conversation, Stephanie presses me to think of myself as someone who not only describes social reality as I see it but also influences that reality. In her view, I’m not a mere observer reporting on the situation as I see it, but a participant in that scene whose observations actually alter the phenomena observed. That degree of influence entails a certain responsibility, which may include offering something beyond a biting critique of affirmative action or racial attitudes or whatever it might be. That responsibility may include a rethinking of my rhetoric, such that I am not only condemning what I see to be dangerous trends in society but reaching out to people with whom I may disagree in order build workable solutions to those problems.
Now, to some extent, I can agree with that. In the decades I’ve spent offering my readings of the American scene to the public, I think I’ve changed some minds (including my own). Maybe I’ve even changed some minds that have influence over material aspects of society. And, yes, that means I do need always to remember that, on The Glenn Show, I’m not just shooting the breeze with friends. My words can have consequences, and there is such a thing as irresponsible speech.
But there is a thin line between choosing your words carefully and engaging in self-censorship, a phenomenon that I’ve analyzed in great depth. If I hold back a trenchant but principled critique or soften my language when I truly believe a sharp tongue is called for, all in the name of pragmatic comity, I may fail in my primary responsibility, which is to tell the truth as I see it. Often that truth is critical and, yes, condemnatory. But there are few today who can or are willing to speak such truths with authority. As long as that’s the case, I feel bound to call it like I see it.
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GLENN LOURY: The 30% or 40% of African American society that is in one way or another failing to engage and to connect and to be able to stand on its own two feet. Wards of the state. Objects of pity and contempt—concealed contempt. This whole game that we play about racism, anti-racism, fragility and what whatnot. We're going to excise the working class, Staten Island-dwelling or South Carolina-dwelling or Trump-voting Louisiana, you know? We're going to give them the back of our hand? We're going to write them off as yahoos? The people who seethe at affirmative action, the ones who think, and some of them are sitting in private high-end schools in New York City who didn't get into the Ivies because, even though they're “better” than the black kid down the way that et cetera, et cetera.
The hypocrisy, the lying, the excuse making. So I have nothing but contempt for it. And my raison d'être is to, as effectively as I can, give voice to that contempt, as incisively, in such a memorable fashion to etch it into stone, that contempt.
STEPHANIE LEPP: I mean, if that's what you want to do, then yeah. I mean, you're doing a great job. You're doing a great job.
But is there not a role for that? I mean, everybody doesn't have to be Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa wasn't Mother Teresa, by the way.
No, no, no, of course. Yeah. All of the above. And it's also like, what is your role here? And my orientation is, this is why I really admire Chloé Valdary. Her second principle is “criticize to uplift.” It's not “don't criticize.” It's criticize in service of what? For purposes of what? There's a difference between canceling and tough love. Like actually I'm criticizing you because I believe in you, because I believe in your capacity to grow. So of course there's a role for critique. It's just what is it serving?
If I were an artist, whatever the medium. I'm a painter. Would my painting have to be in the service of uplift or affirmation of something? What about giving a representation of some of the, I don't know, dark corners of the human spirit or whatever? I'm just imagining. I'm making this up, but I'm just saying. An artist. You wouldn't put him in the service—or her—of a program.
No, I would not. But Glenn, here's the difference I would make between an artist and where you're at. Again, at a certain level of influence, you are no longer just talking about reality. Your paintings are influencing reality. So at a certain level of influence, you actually have to take responsibility.
Like the conversation between Ezra Klein and Fiona Hill about Russia. He's asking her to kind of talk about what she thinks about what's going to happen, you know, paint different scenarios. And she's hesitant. She's like, “Well, I don't really wanna talk about scenarios, 'cause I don't want to lead us in that direction.” It's like, you're already leading us. You are already leading us. The difference is whether you are taking responsibility for where you are leading us. But we are being led right now. So that's something maybe you didn't ask for. But this is the moment we're in.
It's no longer just the gatekeepers. It's no longer Walter Cronkite, whatever. We're in a moment of whoever's got the influence is shaping the reality we're all swimming in. So yeah. I mean, once upon a time, you could paint whatever paintings you want. And now I would say, at your level of influence it's ... I mean, I don't know. I don't want to be so hard on you.
No, it's okay.
There's a bigger responsibility, one could say. One could make that case. And I mean, actually the more important thing, maybe, is if you're so concerned, if you're so scared, if you're concerned about where we're heading, yeah, well then all the more reason to leverage your influence. The more reason to get curious about how to use your influence to move us in a fruitful direction, what you consider to be a fruitful direction.
Yeah. I mean, I've got a trivial thought in my head, something about I just want to speak my truth and let the chips fall where they may. I'm not that clever. I don't know how the bank shot works, to figure out the third-order effect of something that I do on something else.
Here's a question. Here's the question, Glenn. When you say “speak your truth,” do you feel like you're still having revelations about new things that you're wanting to express?
Actually, I do. I don't want to overstate it. I feel my worldview coming into focus a little bit as the years go by. Certain things are still unresolved, like religion, you know? But capitalism. I'm pretty clearly a neoliberal. I'm dug in. Voter suppression? Again, I think minorities are being led around by the nose, that it's a trope—I'll get into such trouble—that it's a mantra, that it's a device, that the “real threats” to democracy, you know, January 6 and all of that ... If I go on, I will get in trouble.
I'm not on a soapbox about it. But I just think I feel myself being manipulated by forces that are impervious, in a way. So maybe what I'm saying is I don't think the people on the other side of most of the debates—I'm not debating about January 6 or anything like that—but the things that I am debating about, I don't think they're sincere. I don't think they're persuadable. I actually enjoyed the conflict.