Playing with Ideas in Public

The kerfuffle over Bill Bennett's recent remarks on his radio show — like the earlier kerfuffle over Harvard President Larry Summer's remarks at a seminar, and like a dozen other such kerfuffles I no longer can recall — all stem from the same root:

Creative and intelligent people — artists, writers, scientists, sociologists, economists and other public intellectuals — play with ideas.  This is how they organize their thoughts, fuse them into new forms and eventually create the 'finished' products that reach the public in the form of paintings, novels, scientific papers that change our understanding of nature, or essays and books that give new insights into how an economy works, what may be happening to our society or what political trends may be emerging next.
 
Before today's world of radio, television and blogs all this 'playing with ideas' took place in private.  The public saw only the 'finished' product — the one signed by its author and for which that author is prepared to be judged.  This is why it's so common among creative people to mark the public unveiling of their newest work by systematically destroying all the drafts and mis—fires that preceded its final creation.  And this is why discovering a long—lost first draft of a famous novel, scientific paper or political tract is so interesting to scholars.  It gives an insight to how the author thought through the issue, which ideas he or she considered and discarded along the way — in short, how the 'finished' product came to be.

When we listen to people like Bill Bennett and Larry Summers musing aloud in front of an open mike — we are listening to them playing with ideas.  We are witness in real time to the creative process itself.   This is why it's so stupid to jump all over these people and to try and destroy them because they framed a thought imperfectly, chose an example that gives offense, or used words a bit too loosely or carelessly.

This is what thinking actually looks like — and if we have become too delicate and sensitive to tolerate it, we will get less of it.

Herb Meyer    10 03 05

The kerfuffle over Bill Bennett's recent remarks on his radio show — like the earlier kerfuffle over Harvard President Larry Summer's remarks at a seminar, and like a dozen other such kerfuffles I no longer can recall — all stem from the same root:

Creative and intelligent people — artists, writers, scientists, sociologists, economists and other public intellectuals — play with ideas.  This is how they organize their thoughts, fuse them into new forms and eventually create the 'finished' products that reach the public in the form of paintings, novels, scientific papers that change our understanding of nature, or essays and books that give new insights into how an economy works, what may be happening to our society or what political trends may be emerging next.
 
Before today's world of radio, television and blogs all this 'playing with ideas' took place in private.  The public saw only the 'finished' product — the one signed by its author and for which that author is prepared to be judged.  This is why it's so common among creative people to mark the public unveiling of their newest work by systematically destroying all the drafts and mis—fires that preceded its final creation.  And this is why discovering a long—lost first draft of a famous novel, scientific paper or political tract is so interesting to scholars.  It gives an insight to how the author thought through the issue, which ideas he or she considered and discarded along the way — in short, how the 'finished' product came to be.

When we listen to people like Bill Bennett and Larry Summers musing aloud in front of an open mike — we are listening to them playing with ideas.  We are witness in real time to the creative process itself.   This is why it's so stupid to jump all over these people and to try and destroy them because they framed a thought imperfectly, chose an example that gives offense, or used words a bit too loosely or carelessly.

This is what thinking actually looks like — and if we have become too delicate and sensitive to tolerate it, we will get less of it.

Herb Meyer    10 03 05