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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Shouting and Stone Deaf

Our strident culture seems to have forgotten the benefits of being willing to hear as well as be heard.

May 04, 2003|JOHN BALZAR

Recently, friends of the Los Angeles Philharmonic gathered downtown, but not to hear music. Southern California happened to be in its glory that day. But these people hadn't come to feast on sunshine or jacaranda blossoms.

It was a day to confront censorship. To worry about freedom and the struggle of free-thinking people against imposed "order." To search history for lessons -- in particular the dark history of Josef Stalin and the unnerving travails imposed on the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

The backdrop for this assembly was not the snow-tipped mountains or the timeless metronome of the Pacific shore break. The backdrop was an era: today, the age in which we find ourselves.

These are vital times. It's not an ordinary conceit to say so. "We are living through a time of great harm now," as the writer D.J. Waldie put it recently.

It was time for music lovers to convene a panel discussion and voice their disquiet about the future of ideas, sensibilities and expression.

My contribution, as a guest before this gathering of 200, was to offer an observation that arises from occupying a space on this page of the newspaper.

To wit: Our civic arguments are frequently unforgiving and growing more so. On matters of state and culture, art and music, in matters of our public lives, we speak to each other in the language of stridency.

The correspondence sent my way in these months by thousands of readers is representatively volcanic: If only people knew better! If only you knew better! If only everybody was as wise as someone else!

I joke that I'm one-half of an argument about civic punctuation: When do we use an exclamation point and when do we use a question mark?

True, arguments of almost any type are preferable to the opposite. The most important argument of all is the argument against silence. And if there is reason to sleep soundly these nights, it is the certain knowledge that so many will awaken prepared to stick a thumb in the eye of anyone who tells us that we'd better shut up.

But we pay a price for our vehemence. Inconsistency, doubt, nuance, subtleness -- the human side of human nature -- get muffled in our public conversations.

These are the rounded corners of our personalities, and they keep us from bruising one another when we collide. Without thinking, we have dropped our guard and taken the first steps toward self- oppression: disregarding the complexity that makes us interesting. Two extremes do not encompass everything in between.

The compression of television, I'm sure, has something to do with it. The camera is kindest to people of unforgiving views. And anxiety in the land is a factor too. The antidote to uncertain times is often certainty, in one form or another, and we are receptive to offers of it.

What the friends of the philharmonic shared with me, in turn, was evidence that it need not be so.

You can fill a room with civic-minded people and light the fire under a pot of such volatile ideas as censorship, civil liberties, governmental authority, national security and classical music. There needn't be a boil-over; no riots in the room, no agents with clubs dispatched to demonstrate that the society's winner-take-all competition had been won, by somebody. Those other human characteristics of empathy, self-doubt and curiosity remind us that democracy is about dialogue too. Only authoritarians insist on being heard without bothering to hear.

Yes, the necessity to have such a gathering is an indictment of our age. But the continuation of this old tradition, the community meeting, is also our acquittal.

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This is John Balzar's last Commentary column before he begins a new assignment for The Times as a senior features writer.

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