The Death Of Civilized Debate

Greg Hengler
|
Posted: Apr 07, 2009 12:46 PM

Ed Schultz on MSNBC’s new political program, “The ED Show”: “My argument with the conservatives is that I think they’re selfish when it comes to healthcare.”

 

Civilized societies, taking freedom of speech for granted, have always delighted in that pearl of great price called controversy for which freedom of speech is its oyster. Controversy has been relegated, for the most part, either to matters people fear to dissent from in public (e.g., Islamic terrorism—or “Overseas Contingency Operation,” gender differences, affirmative action, et al.) or those that, being mainly of secondary interest (e.g., celebrities, political figures, sports figures, CEO’s, and, yes, comments left on Townhall’s blog page, et al.), nobody is mortally concerned with. G.K. Chesterton wrote of himself and his brother Cecil that "we perpetually argued and ... we never quarreled... [W] e never quarreled because we always argued.... His lucidity and love of truth kept things so much on the level of logic."

What makes civilized argument possible is respect for truth and logic.
Political correctness is partly responsible for the decline of controversy both as an art form and a type of intellectual and social discourse, but probably it does not have as central a role to play as people think. Political correctness, for all but the most fervent ideologue, is mainly a matter of manners; and manners, while always important, are not the moving force in this instance. What corrupted controversy is identical to what corrupted politics, American presidential politics especially. Too much is perceived to be at stake in both except that which is most important.

In the race for the presidency, the victor claims the most powerful and prestigious job in the world, as well as (potentially) one of the most lucrative; the loser forfeits the universal prize with agonizing devastation, having felt it nearly within his grasp--see Al Gore and John Kerry. Compared to winning the presidency, what does winning an argument amount to? The answer is, everything, if there is nothing--no final truth, which is--behind the substance of the argument.

Before the 1960s when the majority of Americans saw God as Truth, and Truth the ultimate objective Good, God was the single subject fixed beyond the bounds of controversy. The thinking was that so long as Truth was rigorously protected, subordinate ideas could be allowed free or freer play—they would be “tolerated.” In the contemporary West, which acknowledges no objective truth, the subordinate interests are left to support an enormous weight--the weight of the Unknown God--, which they were never intended to bear. It was thought intolerable, in early modern Europe, that theological Truth should be defeated in argument, because, in losing the argument, all was lost. Today, when absolute Truth is denied, it seems intolerable that economic, social, and political truth should lose--since nothing of ultimate value is perceived to exist beyond economic, social, and political fixes. Here again, there is simply too much at stake for mere argument allowed. In argument's place, there is a quarrel; the quarrel is finally a mortal one; and the logical end of a mortal quarrel is not to shake hands and walk away: It is to humiliate your opponent; to silence him; to deny his existence; even, if possible, to have him arrested on a charge of "hate crime" and thrown in jail.

Today's debate is one of incivility when one addresses the arguer instead of the argument. Everyone has always wanted and hoped to win an argument, of course; everyone has wished, after the argument is won, to see his will prevail in action. Nowadays, however, that is all he wants, because winning is all that matters. And winning is all that matters because we are aware of living in another moral universe from that of our opponent: a universe, moreover, that is determined solely by Will--and that Will not God's Will but man's. And so the fear, naturally enough, is limited strictly to the fear of losing. It has nothing to do with the abysmal, cosmic, and terrifying fear of being metaphysically wrong.

In these hostile-to-God times, we argue only to quarrel; quarrel only to win; and win only to win overwhelmingly--and for keeps. Without a universal fixed-point of Truth, we will continue to quarrel to win and not argue to be right.