The Case for Restraint in All Things

Assertiveness and outrage often do more harm than good, argues John Dickerson, who adds that “generosity and compassion require a pause in self-obsession.”

Asked what debate we ought to be having, John Dickerson, the CBS News anchor and political journalist who excelled earlier this year as moderator of a presidential primary debate, suggested that the world might be better if we all reined it in a bit.

Or as he put it:

I think we should have a debate about restraint. I am a fan of restraint. I think we've lost the ability to restrain ourselves and that leads to boorish behavior, bad outcomes, cruelty, and the forfeit of reason. I want this debated for just the reason you suggest in your question: because debate sharpens ideas, illuminates their more subtle points and makes fuzzy ideas seem exciting through the process of exchanging views.

Restraint allows conversation between different kinds of people.

Artists will tell us that some of their best work came from when they were given limits. Someone could quote Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room.

Most any religious figure could make the case for restraint if for no other reason than generosity and compassion require a pause in self-obsession.

Thinking of others instead of yourself requires restraint particularly in a world where we're being offered this, that, and the other thing to self-sooth, distract, or please ourselves.

There's a political angle that allows you to talk about the benefits of restraint in everything from markets––what pace capitalism?––to the fight against terrorists––sure we're not minting more than we're killing with all of these drone strikes or invasions?

Technology requires a whole restraint regimen to keep us from shredding our attention and losing our ability to do focused work––the only kind of work that creates brilliant arguments or true art. Or is that so? Maybe inspiration and execution can come from the shredded world in a way.

What's the argument for a lack of restraint?

Well, if you don't act, threats grow. If you don't act, injustice is allowed to continue. Sometimes the first hot reaction tells us a truth that's more important than the product of cool reason. This was the undertone of the Clinton/Sanders debate. I tend to be a fan of restraint so I can't name the other arguments, but surely they're out there.

We could get very abstract about the nature of debate itself. As you wrote about with the anti-vaxers (should they be shamed or persuaded?) sometimes stopping and engaging your opponent in conversation makes for a more effective debate. It certainly makes the exchange more illuminating. That requires restraint. I tend to think that most of our public debates would benefit if everyone didn't motive-judge from the outset. If there weren't a social media culture and special-interest-fundraising cycle that fed off lack of restraint that would be great, too.

There's much more to say, but I've gone over my limit. This has wound around a bit.

I could have used a little more restraint.

Dickerson is participating on panels at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. Email to join this debate.