Drawing the Line: Dealing with Difficult Dilemmas

By Howard Gardner

By definition, dilemmas are difficult situations where the optimal course of action is unclear. Recently, two dilemmas facing our society have emerged with considerable force. Not only do they call for resolution, they encourage us to reflect on how best to anticipate, think about, and resolve a range of difficult choices.

Dilemma # 1­   Retaining or Expurgating Names, Monuments, Flags  

In appreciation of their accomplishments or gifts, certain persons or acts have been singled out for recognition.  We name entities after presidents and kings; we mount statues that glorify personalities or actions; we display or give special status to flags, or pennants.  Under what conditions should these forms of recognition be withdrawn and how should that de-valuation be carried out?

Dilemma #2 How Professionals Should Conduct Themselves:  The Case of Journalism

In the wake of the progressive era in the early years of the 20th century, news reporters in the United States were expected to be as objective and disinterested as possible:  just report the facts and leave interpretations and personal views to the side (or, at any rate, to the editorial columns).  This commitment has gradually eroded. Nowadays, reporters frequently have their own twitter accounts in which they do not hesitate to express their own views and attitudes on matters of consequence—and even if these views are not explicitly interwoven into their news reports, the attentive reader knows what the reporter “really” thinks about the personalities and issues being covered.  Should reporters be encouraged, allowed, or prohibited from tweeting on anything related to their day job? And if allowed, should any constraints be placed on these forms of expression?

Recently I have been drawn into discussions of both dilemmas. To be sure, these dilemmas are quite distinct from one another.  And yet, despite such differences, I suggest that they raise similar issues about whether, and, if so, where to draw the line.  Indeed, insights with respect to this pair of dilemmas may prove more useful generally.

In each of the cases, it is straight-forward to delineate the extreme positions:

With respect to Dilemma #1

Extreme Position A

The individuals who created the commemoration did so in good faith and, in fact, in most cases, the commemoration has stood the test of time. It is unfair to the originators, and a disservice to history, to attempt to erase the deeds (or, even, the misdeeds) of the past.

Extreme Position B

Any person or entity that is connected to slavery (or criminal activity, racism, misogyny, or some other disreputable act or viewpoint) should not be honored in any public way.

With respect to Dilemma #2

Extreme Position A

Journalists, like professionals, have been afforded status and a sacred trust to report the news objectively.  Their first and most important obligation is to do everything in their powers to earn and retain that trust. While it is never possible to be confident that one has been completely objective, journalists should strive for this ideal.

Extreme Position B

The vaunted objectivity of journalism has co-occurred with enormous imbalances of power, coverage, and accuracy—some intentional, some incidental.  Journalists have the most detailed knowledge of what has happened and why.  Accordingly, they have the right—even the obligation—to call it as they see it via whatever media are at their disposal. It is never possible to be completely objective.  Thus, journalists should make clear their positions on matters where they are convinced that one party is right, and the other wrong—and equally, with respect to public personalities whose behavior they value or disdain.

With respect to both dilemmas, certain factors may predict the stance that individuals will take.

Extreme position A tends to be taken by older persons, often from the ranks of the better treated demographies.  Extreme position B tends to be taken by younger persons, and particularly those from groups that have not been well treated.  Of course, the generations are just a rough rule of thumb—there will always be other factors that contribute to one’ s stance on vexing issues.

Further, with respect to both dilemmas, some of us are more likely to be absolutists.  Others of us will search for common ground (or compromise or intermediate position) and are more prepared to change our minds.

Speaking for myself, probably reflecting my age, background, and societal niche, I have found myself closer to position A—quite publicly with respect to Dilemma #2. I believe that professions (law, medicine, journalism) represent a formidable human invention over the centuries:  they should be defended as vigorously as possible.  And with respect to Dilemma #1, as a person who is historically-minded, I am doubtful about attempts to re-write history, which we associate with fiction like Orwell’s 1984, and with actual events and periods, such as those of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China (and, alas, more current examples leap to mind).

At the same time, as someone who aspires to think of himself as open-minded—as prepared to change his mind—I have read and listened carefully to those who have put forth alternative perspectives. As I like to put it—on very few matters am I a fundamentalist:  A person with a commitment not to change my mind.  Indeed, with respect to this pair of dilemmas, I am eager to formulate an approach—process—that moves toward a cogent and defensible middle ground.

To achieve this ambitious goal, we should take three steps:

  1. A clear delineation of the pros and cons—the rewards and the costs– of each extreme position

  2. An in-depth discussion of what might constitute one or more viable intermediate positions

  3. A process for arriving at and adopting that middle ground, giving it a try, and determining whether it has been successful and which significant alterations tweaks might be indicated—including, when necessary, a return to the ‘drawing boards”

Needless to say, as always characterizes issues of consequence, “the devil is in the details.”

To start this process off, here are some consideration:

With respect to the dilemma of commemoration:

  • Names, banners/flags/ monuments are not the same; different processes might be appropriate for each form of commemoration; these processes should be spelled out and followed carefully;

  • A decision to remove some form of commemoration should not be an attempt to erase it from history; at times  when such a removal is made,  a documentation of the process should be carried out, the reasons for it delineated, and the preservation of that record ensured;

  • A decision to retain some form of commemoration does not imply endorsement; indeed, some form of discussion, history, pros and cons should be encouraged, displayed, and periodically revisited;

With respect to the dilemma of the profession of journalism:

  • It should be recognized that objectivity/disinterestedness is at most an aspiration, no one can be fully objective or dis-interested;

  • Inequities over time in power and influence should be recognized and addressed: If, as an example, editors and reporters have not been representative of the diversity and the demographics of a society, that imbalance should be addressed directly;

  • Reporters should have the option of declaring that they will not text or tweet on any public matter, editors should respect that decision, and such reporters should be publicly identified as non-tweeters, just as those who tweet or text already identify themselves in that way;

  • Publications should also clarify their position on such extra forms of publicity;

  • If, going forth, reporters and editors observe these new guidelines, they should not be sanctioned or fired for earlier violations;

  • Across the professions (e.g. law, education, journalism), the same kinds of guidelines should be encouraged and observed.  Indeed, such publicly articulated and carefully executed processes constitute the essence of a profession;

Concluding notes

I would be pleased—but also astonished—if most persons who read these proposals would simply endorse them.  But the point is less to prescribe than propose a process whereby the extreme positions can be bridged.  Extreme absolutist positions rarely make sense in the long run; indeed, they often result in a lurch, an over-reaction in the diametrically opposite direction.

More important, the process of negotiating, of searching for middle ground, may be salutary in itself.  It may be comfortable to be surrounded by people who agree completely with oneself; but it’s preferable to encounter people with whom one may disagree but who seek to find a common ground and to lay out the principles  and the processes that have proved efficacious

The stance that I am recommending lies at the heart of a broad education—an education in the liberal arts. And while such an education does not always yield individuals who can listen carefully, reflect clearly, and search for a reasonable middle ground, its absence makes such aspirations difficult to achieve.

That is the kind of education that I favor—and the kind of society I would like to live in.

Note: I thank my colleagues on The Good Project for their comments on earlier drafts

© Howard Gardner 2020

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One Comment on “Drawing the Line: Dealing with Difficult Dilemmas”

  1. Eyadhamdan July 17, 2020 at 7:56 pm #

    Hello Mr. Gardner
    How are you doing
    I’m Iyad Hamdan from Jordan, a researcher in PsychologyI liked the way you deal with human intelligence.
    Do you have new research that I can benefit from?

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