By Joseph Little
NBC’s interview with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in May didn’t reveal the inner workings of the man behind the secrets. In fact, it didn’t reveal much of anything that hadn’t already been established in Luke Harding’s “The Snowden Files” or Glenn Greenwald’s “Nowhere to Hide.” Except one thing: It showed us how a man under pressure would handle himself in a public debate, and in so doing it gave us insight into Snowden’s character while illustrating a model for effective debate in America.
The pivotal moment for me came around the 30-minute mark. NBC’s Brian Williams asked Snowden what he would say if given an audience with President Obama.
“I would leave advising the president to his advisers. I wouldn’t presume to place myself on the level to be able to suggest what his course of action should be,” said Snowden.
“Would you ask him if you could come home, free and clear?” Williams continued.
“I think that’s a decision that he’ll weigh and decide based on what he believes would serve the public interest, and I think that’s proper and appropriate,” said Snowden.
There it was, a rare bird in American public discourse these days: what the ancient Greeks called aporia, what we might today call intellectual humility, knowing one’s limits, respecting the territory of your opponent even when that opponent is your accuser and the stakes are grave.
Williams served up a half-dozen opportunities for Snowden to excoriate the president, and a less-humble Snowden would surely have used one of them to bring up Benghazi, the IRS, the escalation of drone strikes or the rollout of Obamacare. Instead, Snowden simply deferred to the president on matters beyond his range, and returned to the issues he could speak to with authority.
As law professor Brett Scharffs notes in the University of California, Davis Law Review, humble debaters exhibit “a proper understanding of the sources of one’s strength.” As far as arguments go, they tend not to trespass into foreign lands because that wandering would require them to speculate, overgeneralize, employ unreliable judgment or guess, degrading the quality of the debate. In short, humble debaters tend to stay on point, and that tendency is good for America because it usually leads to the development of the debate, sometimes to its stalemate, but rarely to its disintegration into a Jerry Springer-esque spectacle.
This humility that Snowden demonstrated I believe we should demand of all of our political candidates. It is a necessary part of any debate that favors truth over entertainment. The call for intellectual humility in our leaders, then, is a call for a style of public debate that prioritizes the citizen over the cable subscriber.
Joseph Little, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Niagara University.