Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A plea for cool, analytical, logical, and (yes!) left-brained conversation

I've been meaning for some time to blog about an article in one of last year's final editions of the Economist Magazine on Socrates and Socratic dialog.  Inspired by growing frustrations with the level of political discourse I see everywhere around me, I do so now.


First, heat trumps light:
Visiting America today, Socrates might have dropped in on last summer’s “town hall” meetings, in which members of the public allegedly came to debate the reform of health care with their elected representatives. Socrates would have beheld hysterical firebrands shouting that America’s president and senators were Marxists, Nazis or both.
Second, winning trumps truth seeking:
Socrates considered the debate in such settings unedifying, pointless and unworthy—in a word, “eristic”. Eris was the Greek goddess of strife (the Roman Discordia). It was Eris who cunningly dropped a golden apple with the inscription “to the fairest” into a feast, inciting three goddesses—Hera, Athena and Aphrodite—to bicker over who deserved it and thus launching the ten-year Trojan War. Eris is present in presidential debates, in court rooms and wherever people are talking not to discover truth but to win.
Third and fourth, opinion trumps argument, and expression trumps listening:
In 1968 Stringfellow Barr, an historian and president of St John’s College in Maryland, wrote a Socratic critique of American discourse: “There is a pathos in television dialogue: the rapid exchange of monologues that fail to find the issue, like ships passing in the night; the reiterated preface, ‘I think that…,’ as if it mattered who held which opinion rather than which opinion is worth holding; the impressive personal vanity that prevents each ‘discussant’ from really listening to another speaker”.
Wouldn't it be nice if...
Socrates’s alternative was “good” conversation or dialectic. To converse originally meant to turn towards one another, in order to find a common humanity and to move closer to the truth of something. Dialectic, in other words, is decidedly not about winning or losing, because all the conversants are ennobled by it. It is a joint search. Unfortunately, as Mr Barr put it, it is also “the most difficult” kind of conversation “especially for Americans to achieve”.

On a good day, Socrates’s conversations bore all the marks of dialectic. There was little long-winded monologue and much pithy back-and-forth. The conversation often meandered and sometimes Socrates contradicted himself.
Here in America, we  prefer to use conversation to further cement prejudices, bond with the "right people", and deflect opposing arguments.  Here are some well-worn strategies:

1. Rather than using a conversation with someone who disagrees with you to test out your ideas and modify them in light of what the other person says, use the conversation as a means to proclaim your opinions and catch the other guy whenever he or she slips up or appears to contradict him or herself.  ("But earlier you said that...")

2. Rather than listening to the most intelligent, thoughtful members of the opposing side in order better to understand their arguments, harp on the least intelligent, least thoughtful members of the opposition.  

3. Rather than focusing on the substance of the arguments on the other side, focus on the personal character flaws of the least savory members of the opposition; other, more disturbing opinions that they hold (however irrelevant); the most troubling aspects of their personal and professional associates; and the bias you perceive in the venues that publish or air their views--and use each one of these factors to further impugn every other factor.

4. Assume that everyone in the opposition is ipso facto stupid, reckless, heartless, or advancing a sinister agenda, and view everything they say through this prism.

Finally, as has worked so well for all other prejudices (from ethnicity to race to sexual preference), minimize personal contact with those who disagree with you by ensuring that your friends and neighbors are all "good," "intelligent," "open minded" people--regardless of what those terms might actually mean.

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