By Kevin Meyer
The recent Juan Williams controversy has made me think some more about the power, and importance, of diverse opinions. For those of you that haven't listened to the news lately, Mr. Williams is a commentator and analyst on both Fox News and NPR with a known liberal bent. He was recently fired from NPR for a comment he made on The O'Reilly Factor on Fox. What did he say?
"Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality. I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America's war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts."
I can see how some people might take offense at that, even if he is just stating his opinion. What many people, apparently including NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller, missed was his very next statement:
"But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it's not a war against Islam. … Bill, here's a caution point. The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby's neck and says he's attacking him or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero … I don't know what is in that guy's head. But I'm saying, we don't want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they heard a rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly and they act crazy. We've got to say to people as Bill was saying tonight, that guy is a nut."
Juan was admitting he wasn't perfect, and then used that to make a point about how we need to be better. Quite the opposite of what Ms. Schiller portrayed. With a couple of rare exceptions on the left-wing fringe, media from all perspectives, including the heads of most NPR affiliates, have condemned the decision to fire Juan Williams. To top things off, he now has a new $2 million contract with Fox News. Sort of makes you wonder who is really "fair and balanced."
I'll even go on record as saying I have some of those same feelings when I fly and see people that may fall under certain stereotypes. I am then ashamed of my thoughts and that shame makes me think and those thoughts help me become more tolerant. Confronting feelings, and the often baseless assumptions beneath them, stimulates change and improvement.
Stifling those feelings and opinions does exactly the opposite and actually prevents understanding. That's the inherent danger of political correctness.
Last Friday I was listening to one of the most idiotic news/opinion shows created in recent memory, CNN's Parker-Spitzer. I give the show another couple weeks before CNN realizes its mistake, but I will say that Kathleen Parker nailed it with a comment on the Juan Williams controversy:
"If we're not careful we'll miss some of the big ideas that tumble out of our less careful thoughts."
Wow. That hit me hard enough that I pulled the car over and wrote it down. That is the essence of the power of dissenting opinion. This is not just in terms of politics, but everything. Perhaps particularly in business where consensus is unfortunately overvalued.
A few months ago I discussed the importance of listening to the naysayers. We often hear of Jim Collins' suggestion to get the right people on the bus, and perhaps even in the right seats. Do we really want that? Or do we need the vocal, passionate, opposition that forces us to confront alternatives and even ugly truths? Which creates a more powerful organization filled with exceptional people?