The Hinlicky Rule And The New York Times – Ringing In The New Year

The Hinlicky Rule and the New York Times

January 6, 2013

Allan Stevo

American politics for whatever reason in the era of George W. Bush and Barrack Obama has become especially polarized. In that heated political environment that surrounds American politics it frustrates me to see usually thoughtful people descend into little more than partisan bickering.  What Bush used to do with reckless abandon is now denounced as patently un-American when done by Obama.  What Obama supporters used to scream loudly about when done by Bush is now either ignored or sometimes even praised when done by Obama.  Politics brings out the worst in people as they put the logic of what they are saying aside and put the relationship they have with a politician into a primary position.

The first time I heard the Hinlicky Rule, was from a student of the Roanoke College Professor Paul Hinlicky who brought it up in a discussion a number of years after he graduated from college and after a tour of duty in Iraq had given him added insight on the world.  As the idea came up more and more in discussion with former students of Hinlicky who had found their way to Slovakia, the Hinlicky Rule became so incredibly refreshing to hear.  This is the Hinlicky Rule:

“You shall not criticize the position of another…until you can state that position with such accuracy, completeness and sympathy, that the opponent himself declares, ‘Yes, I could not have said it better myself!‘ Then, and only then, may you criticize. For then you are engaging a real alternative and advancing a real argument. Otherwise you shed only heat, not light.”

Wherever this rule’s origins lay, I can say conclusively that it summarizes much of my intellectual experience in Central Europe, the land that taught me so fervently there’s always another side to the story.  That means a lot of things.

  • “Don’t get worked up about what you really, really think you know, because chances are that you don’t know as much as you think.”
  • “In politics opinions and leaps of faith are always involved, which means that right and wrong don’t often exist.  A lot of it boils down to what a person feels in his or her gut.”
  • “There is no such thing as ‘orthodoxy,’ literally meaning ‘correct opinion.’”
  • “Lots of situations just happen and you have no control over them. When you are quick to blame someone, you probably don’t really know as much as you think.”
  • “Read more opinions that you disagree with, because no matter how worked up you are, you probably don’t know as much as you think.”
  • “Talk to more people on the bus, at lunch, in the elevator who you wouldn’t usually talk to, especially if they look like someone you wouldn’t really enjoy talking to, because chances are you probably don’t know as much about them as you think you do.”

Hinlicky’s Rule is a constant intellectual challenge.  If the Hinlicky Rule is what Lenin meant when he said “Učiť sa, učiť sa, učiť sa” (Slovak translation) – “учитъся, учитъся, учитъся” (original Russian from Попятное движение в русской социал-демократии, A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social-Democracy, 1899) – “Study, study, study” (English translation) –  then he is an even more brilliant man than history gives him credit for. The intellectual creativity and rigor of the Hinlicky Rule was not something Lenin meant.  What he seemed to have meant in 1924 when those words were published was a little more sinister – learn to read, learn to study what we give you to study, learn to fill your mind with the ideas we give you.  If Lenin did not mean that, by the year 1989, that’s surely what “Učiť sa, učiť sa, učiť sa” had come to mean for many of the people of a significant part of the world’s land mass.  Realizing that an illiterate people could not read propaganda, the governments of the Soviet Union and her satellites worked very hard to ensure that nearly the entire population was able to read and consistently reported much higher literacy rates than were had in the United States.

Hinlicky’s Thinking in the NYT

The rigorous test presented by the Hinlicky Rule is something I constantly see myself trying to live up to. So, when I see a variation of the Hinlicky Rule appearing in the New York Times, I get very happy.  The American “newspaper of record,” the de facto national newspaper of the Democratic Party, runs an article saying in essence – “remember, we don’t really know as much as we think we know, so please get subscriptions this year to magazines that have entirely different perspectives than what you will read in the New York Times.” That makes me very happy.  It’s a welcome voice in politics saying “tone down the shouting and the rhetoric a notch please.”  It’s a welcome voice in my homeland saying “try acting less like a know-it-all please.”

Thank you to Hinlicky for the understanding that he puts out into the world; thank you to Central Europe for being a place where an American boy with a strong sense of black and white can come to learn about the gray, and thank you to the New York Times for wisely professing ignorance and insisting that it isn’t the ultimate source of truth.

Sentiments like those make life much more pleasant and make differences of opinion less personal.  When ego gets wrapped up in discussion and truth and opinion get confused many people start to act as if they are very certain.  That certainty brings with it arrogance and leaves little room for genuine discussion in which two parties come together attempting to learn and advance their understanding of the world in the few minutes that they have together.

Everywhere I turn in America it feels like there’s constantly a TV on.  When there isn’t a TV on, someone within earshot is at least repeating some talking point from a television.  The mindless talking points are hard to escape.  It’s refreshing whenever I meet a person who has an appreciation of the Hinlicky Rule, or its underlying concepts, and it’s refreshing when that person has little interest in simply repeating media talking points about whatever the latest news is.

With what seems like a 2 year presidential election cycle behind us, in America (and to some extent worldwide), I am happy to see 2013 rung in with words from that article. So much media disappoints me with its lack of thoughtful insight and refusing to cover the gamut of political thought on an issue, many NYT articles included.  In contrast, this article hints toward the Hinlicky Rule’s insistence of better understanding your opponent before opening your mouth.

Thank you Ross Douthat of the New York Times for an excellent piece entitled How to Read in 2013:

“COME what may in the next 12 months, 2013 has this much going for it: It’s a year without a midterm election, and a year that’s as far removed as possible from the next presidential race. This means that for a blessed 365 days you can be a well-informed and responsible American citizen without reading every single article on Politico, without hitting refresh every 30 seconds on your polling-average site of choice, without channel-hopping between Chris Matthews’s hyperventilating and Dick Morris’s promises of an inevitable Republican landslide.

“So use the year wisely, faithful reader. For a little while, at least, let gridlock take care of itself, shake yourself free of the toils of partisanship, and let your mind rove more widely and freely than the onslaught of 2014 and 2016 coverage will allow.

“Here are three steps that might make such roving particularly fruitful. First, consider taking out a subscription to a magazine whose politics you don’t share. I’m using the word ‘subscription’ advisedly: it may sound fusty in the age of blogs and tweets and online hopscotching, but reading the entirety of a magazine, whether in print or on your tablet, is a better way to reckon with the ideas that its contributors espouse than just reading the most-read or most-e-mailed articles on its Web site, or the occasional inflammatory column that all your ideological compatriots happen to be attacking.

“So if you love National Review’s political coverage, add The New Republic or The Nation to your regular rotation as well. If you think that The New Yorker’s long-form journalism is the last word on current affairs, take out a Weekly Standard subscription and supplement Jeffrey Toobin with Andy Ferguson, Adam Gopnik with Christopher Caldwell. If you’re a policy obsessive who looks forward every quarter to the liberal-tilting journal Democracy, consider a subscription to the similarly excellent, right-of-center National Affairs. And whenever you’re tempted to hurl away an article in disgust, that’s exactly when you should turn the page or swipe the screen and keep on reading, to see what else the other side might have to say. (Emphasis added)

“Second, expand your reading geographically as well as ideologically. Even in our supposedly globalized world, place still shapes perspective, and the fact that most American political writers live in just two metropolitan areas tends to cramp our ability to see the world entire.

“So the would-be cosmopolitan who currently gets a dose of British-accented sophistication from The Economist — a magazine whose editorial line varies only a little from the Manhattan-and-D.C. conventional wisdom — might do well to read the London Review of Books and The Spectator instead. (The multilingual, of course, can roam even more widely.) The conservative who turns to Manhattan-based publications for defenses of the “Real America” should cast a bigger net — embracing the Californian academics who preside over the Claremont Review of Books, the heartland sans-culottes at RedState, the far-flung traditionalists who write for Front Porch Republic. And the discerning reader should always have an eye out for talented writers — like the Montanan Walter Kirn, the deserving winner of one of my colleague David Brooks’s Sidney Awards — who cover American politics from outside D.C. and N.Y.C.

“Finally, make a special effort to read outside existing partisan categories entirely. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean reading reasonable-seeming types who split the left-right difference. It means seeking out more marginal and idiosyncratic voices, whose views are often worth pondering precisely because they have no real purchase on our political debates.

“Start on the non-Republican right, maybe, with the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservative. Then head for the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry offer a constant reminder of how much room there is to the left of the current Democratic Party.

“And don’t be afraid to lend an ear to voices that seem monomaniacal or self-marginalizing, offensive or extreme. There are plenty of writers on the Internet who are too naïve or radical or bigoted to entrust with any kind of power, but who nonetheless might offer an insight that you wouldn’t find in the more respectable quarters of the press.

If these exercises work, they’ll make 2013 a year that unsettles your mind a little — subjecting the views you take for granted to real scrutiny, changing the filters through which you view the battles between Team R and Team D, reminding you that more things are possible in heaven and earth than are dreamed of by John Boehner and Harry Reid. (Emphasis added)

“Then, and only then, will you be ready to start counting the days till the 2016 Iowa caucuses arrive.”

I like that both Hinlicky and Douthat structure their pronouncements in the same way at the end with their ‘then and only then’ language.

Forbes Follows Up

A girl who works at a big advertising firm practically scolded me a month ago for not reading Forbes, saying that someone like me should be paying more attention to the places where thought leaders were writing.  Not surprisingly, Forbes, three days after Ross Douthat, took a bigger step and published “Extending Ross Douthat: How to Read Even Better in 2013.” The article by Todd Essig adds to Douthat’s original, and delves into his perspective, as a psychologist, about how minds are changed. Like most sequels is not quite as good on its own as the original was on its own.  The sentiment of the Hinlicky Rule exists in both of them, however, with Essig signing off his column with the line “I wish everyone a new year full of curious ideas that infuriate you.”

I look forward to having a new year full of curious ideas that infuriate me and if you, dear reader, desire the same for yourself, I hope that you find that along with bittersweet sense of growth that comes with each new and unfamiliar, slightly uncomfortable opinion that you push yourself to seek to understand.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

Photo Credit: Ando Arike, Williamsburg Observer

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