The Impoverishment of Our Discourse (Part I: Diagnosis)

It is no secret that there is a profound sense of disagreement and polarization in our society over moral and political issues. While the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent polemics on all sides of the political spectrum are notable signs of this, the symptoms had been emerging decades before. There is a sense that something new has been happening in our moral and political discourse for the past several decades and that its implications are rapidly getting more severe.
Certainly every society and historical age has experienced moral disagreement in various ways. What is it that is so unique and difficult about the way this surfaces in the contemporary world? One key element is that in the past interlocutors could have profound disagreements with one another, and yet still accept that their opponents’ position, as wrongheaded as it may be, was an intelligible position for which reasons could be given.
Consider the noteworthy debates between the renowned playwright and atheist George Bernard Shaw and the journalist and author G.K. Chesterton. It is hard to imagine two more opposed positions on any number of religious, moral and social issues. Yet there is no doubt that each had a decent understanding of what the other argued and why.

Compare this with the more recent debates between “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and any number of Christian apologists and theologians. In these more recent cases the views of the opposing party appear to be utterly unintelligible to the other party, and what passes for argument tends to be lists of accusations of historic wrongs when it does not descend to downright name-calling.
In this respect it is quite interesting to note that Vatican I at the close of the nineteenth century had to warn against a rationalism that threatened to eliminate any role for faith, while at the end of the twentieth John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio needed to marshal a defence of reason against the forces of relativism.
In the face of this problematic situation two questions present themselves: first, why has this unfortunate situation come about? Second, what can be done about it? Today I will simply address the first. My next post will address the second.
One of the key factors in this development is the growing Machiavellianism of our social discourse. There seems to be a growing pessimism that underlies this inability to understand the other. Our society is one in which there is a general sense that people are bad. We seldom pause to reflect that when we act on this often unarticulated presupposition, that we generally mean other people, those who are not part of the group or community which with I most readily identify, are bad, duplicitous or not to be trusted. This conviction is the basis of Machiavelli’s original advice to rulers:

“A prince must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this. Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.”

One might initially think that his position is that a ruler need not keep faith because circumstances change, i.e. the reasons he made a commitment no longer exist. But clearly he means more than this, for he says that if people were good the rule wouldn’t apply. But surely circumstances change in a community of the good every bit as much as in a community of the bad. What he is suggesting is that since people are bad, the ruler’s commitments are only binding insofar as they serve his or her interests. On this view every political commitment is ultimately contingent; in society everyone is fundamentally out for number one. It is safe to assume that others will not keep faith with us, so we are entitled to not keep faith with them. Nothing could be further from the Catholic view of the person as fundamentally good, created in the image of God, living in the gift of grace, yet in spite of the fundamental vocation to goodness, a subject of competing desires and inclinations to selfishness and evil to be overcome.

Machiavelli’s position is problematic enough. It is his principle that rulers “ought not to keep faith” when it is inconvenient that gives birth to the politics of “alternative facts”. But this approach has extended beyond rulers, for whom there has always been a healthy cynicism, to society in general. Where there are passionately held commitments we don’t agree with or understand, we stop looking at the reasons and instead only note the fact of agreement or disagreement.
This has its roots in a distrust of reasoning itself. In a media based culture in which every view is presented alongside the opposing view, it is easy to believe that the differences between any strongly held position is a matter of opinion. In this context, reasoning comes to be seen as just a way of thinly veiling our biases and allegiances which, it is suspected, are what are really determining our positions.
In some ways this is not a new problem. The ancient Greek sceptics held that for any thesis equally compelling arguments could be constructed on either side of the issue. Yet, unlike our contemporaries who see this either as a reason to be more partisan and disregard the reasons of opponents as irrational, the sceptics argued we should suspend judgment with respect to any position. Unfortunately this is not a tenable solution. Theoretically it is self-refuting, for should be not also suspend judgment about whether suspending judgement is best? Further, it is not very practical as life requires that we make decisions about all sorts of circumstantial matters, so the sceptic finds him or herself in a lived contradiction.
Notwithstanding the ancient roots of scepticism, I do think it is fair to say there is something new and dangerous about our contemporary situation. Our scepticism is so often partial. We find it easy to be sceptical of the positions of others, while being dogmatic about our own. This is, of course, only to diagnose the problem. I have yet to engage the more important task of proposing a cure. That will be the topic of the next post.