article: Open Society?


    The commentary below was submitted to but not broadcast by KPBX Spokane Public Radio in 2001.

Karl Popper’s influential work, The Open Society and its Enemies, sets the yardstick of a good social order by the amount of nonviolent freedom of expression it can allow and by the transparency of its political system. But the political sphere provides only a framework, and unless openness characterizes a community’s life as a whole its potential benefits are greatly reduced and  may even become meaningless. If it is true on the one hand that Soviet-style regimes of the past presented a travesty of true democracy, on the other hand even a comparatively sound political basis won’t help much in a local environment where the inhabitants in effect trample on the premises of democracy in their private lives. The society of this locality is in this sense more closed than any I have ever known.

I recall a program on a college radio station in this area where foreign students were asked their opinion of their American counterparts on campus. “They hide,” was the reply. That short remark merely scratched the surface of a vast complex of phenomena: the student was making an attempt to account for the whole covert atmosphere of exclusion and discrimination she had found there.

     In order to illustrate what I mean, I would like to describe an incident that happened to me in Spokane many years ago. By recounting a personal experience I am weakening my argument in the sense that it will appear more subjective, yet the best way to understand someone’s feelings is to identify with that person through an analogous occurrence in our own life. So here it is. I am leaving a large store. I notice that two ladies are standing outside by the door. One of them heaves a deep sigh of relief, and says to her companion, “At last! Now we can go in.” I didn’t get the meaning of the remark, because nothing like it had ever happened to me. Then, after my memory replayed this puzzling incident a couple of times, I told myself, “Well, no, they couldn’t have been talking about me. If they had, they wouldn’t have said it so I could hear it.” But by the time I had been the target of similar pranks the hundredth time, I came to realize that its very purpose was to make me hear it. My mistake was to start from a completely opposite set of values: taking it for granted that you don’t hurt people deliberately, at the very least not those who haven’t hurt you and about whom you know nothing.

     Just as I believe I could appreciate the remark of that foreign student–which in fact amounted to a desperate cry for help–by drawing on my own experiences, perhaps I in turn can begin to make you realize that when you casually dismiss or reject someone who seems like an easy target and fun to abuse, you can be setting a chain reaction in motion that may in the end not only destroy that person, but will damage the society you belong to and ultimately your own interest will suffer. If you don’t livethe principle that all humans should be treated with equity, your failure to do so is apt to boomerang in the long run.

     What is most deeply troubling for me is to see that the members of a community don’t even want to be fair and the tacit assumption that an act of make-believe can be substituted for the truth if a large enough number join in the pretense. I do not dispute that the people of this area have some very admirable qualities, and I have found that often they will give an ear to rational argument. Were this not the case, I would regard it  futile to make these very comments. I just wish to plead with them to pause for a moment and reflect whether my words have some relevance.

Lester Shepard

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