Modern political discourse specializes in imputing motives—mostly bad ones—to one’s adversaries. Rarely, if ever, are one’s opponents taken as honest interlocutors arguing in good faith.
Given the self-evidence of our side’s arguments and the righteousness of our side’s cause, we think, our opponents must either be fools or scoundrels—probably both. They are obviously insincere, deceitful, duplicitous, fraudulent, misleading, unscrupulous, underhanded, and biased; their charges “trumped up”; their accusations “dishonest”; and their solutions “self-serving.”
Disagreements are essential to any functioning democracy and can be a sign of its health and vitality. However, the tone and increasing lack of basic civility that have come to categorize public discourse should disturb us. Expressing offense or indignation at someone else’s words or actions has become the dominant theme of the overwhelming majority of newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, and blog posts.
MacIntyre and Moral Argument after Nietzsche
Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that modern moral and political discourse provides only a “semblance of rationality, but not its reality.” Indeed, it is precisely the “mock rationality of the debate,” claims MacIntyre, that “conceals the arbitrariness of the will and power at work in its resolution.”
We suspect that our partisan adversaries’ arguments didn’t come first. Rather, the conclusion came first; only later did they search for supporting arguments to buttress their position publicly. But if this is the case, then, as Nietzsche argued, what we call “arguments” are only masks for our own will to power.
It is for this reason, argues MacIntyre, that “unmasking the unacknowledged motives of arbitrary will and desire which sustain the moral masks of modernity” becomes itself “one of the most characteristically modern of activities.” One’s opponents are never merely mistaken; they must be hiding something deeper and more sinister. Their arguments are “hypocritical” and “dishonest,” their presentation of the facts “deceptive” and “misleading,” their accusations “biased,” their charges “trumped up,” their defense of allies “insincere,” and their presentation of the issues “deceitful.”
“It was Freud’s achievement,” adds MacIntyre, “to discover that unmasking arbitrariness in others may always be a defense against uncovering it in ourselves.” We have raised a culture of media-savvy adults who specialize in seeing through the illusory and fictitious claims of their opponents, but who never take the time to examine their own. The weaker one fears one’s own case is, the louder the shouting and the more dismissive the tone of address toward one’s opponents. Since there is no way of securing rational agreement, the partisans of each side feel they must resort to a certain self-assertive shrillness to secure their point in the public consciousness.
Thus, political discussions in the public realm have become increasingly shallow: something more akin to a children’s mud fight than the rational discourse America’s founders hoped would characterize the civic life of the American republic.
How the News Makes Us Dumb: Amusing Ourselves to Death
Unfortunately, the tendency of the news media is not to calm these shrill voices and appeal to the more thoughtful angels of our nature, but to amplify the shrillest voices for their entertainment and commercial value. As Neil Postman argued in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the “news” business has turned information into a commodity for sale, and “we increasingly live in a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment.”
And not merely any sort of entertainment, but the sort that appeals to emerging adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five: the group most often targeted by marketers. Because they spend substantial sums on consumer items they believe will help them fashion a certain identity, these young adults are most susceptible to advertising. Not only has the news become a commodity to be marketed, it must be marketable to a demographic group that is also the key audience for the WWE and the UFC. It is not without reason, therefore, that what passes for political discourse on most television news shows is the verbal equivalent of a WWE “smackdown.”
“Deep down, we don’t care if our daily news is entirely authentic,” writes John Sommerville in How the News Makes Us Dumb, “as long as it is entertaining, like professional wrestling.”
On the Internet: Special Interests but Little Attention
Any hopes that the internet might provide a forum for the sort of reasoned discourse missing from the major media have long since vanished—except, of course, for Public Discourse. Instead of allowing longer and more intellectually complex discussions than the mainstream media, most popular internet sites do the opposite, allowing only shorter and even more partisan presentations. Sadly, print magazines have decided they must imitate the web, and articles in print are getting shorter as well.
The internet has simply provided avenues for both sides to sequester themselves more effectively from their opponent’s views and concerns. Internet readers see only the information and arguments their side considers “relevant,” and they are presented with even more of the shrill dismissal of the other side’s motives. And since many popular web sites are supported by interest groups with a particular ideological agenda, they’re not especially interested in publishing articles not in accord with their own viewpoint.
Even more disturbing are the comment boxes on such sites, most of which exhibit the largely thoughtless, biased, and hackneyed character of modern political discourse. One reads the same trite expressions, the same invalid arguments, and the same ad hominem attacks ad nauseum. It’s hard to know how much faith Alexis de Tocqueville would place in America’s democratic experiment were he alive today.
Tocqueville and the founders of the American republic recognized the danger of “mob mentality” and tried to discipline public discourse within forums that enforced both civility and order. Just as the average playground basketball game is not the best place to work out the question of who fouled whom, so too the average internet site or television interview show is rarely the best place to work out intellectual, political, or moral questions.
Vaclav Havel: How Ideology Corrupts Public Discourse
The incommensurability at the heart of modern moral and political discourse that ensures I can never lose an argument also ensures that I can never win. Thus there always remains an inherent instability, if not at the heart of my convictions, then at least in the discontinuity that continues to exist between my convictions and my words—between my stated reasons for my position and my inner knowledge that these reasons have little or nothing to do with what I am demanding of others.
In his famous 1978 essay “Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel proposed the example of a greengrocer who must put in his shop window a sign with the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” “Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world?” asks Havel. “Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?” Of course not, says Havel. The reality that the words are meant to signify has perversely become less important than the expression of solidarity with the ideology. The sign’s “significance” is in what it says about the greengrocer himself.
Havel’s greengrocer helps us understand why certain groups have developed a peculiar hypersensitivity to various words. It is not the content of the word or gesture that is ultimately significant; it’s what they imply (or might be interpreted as implying) about the person and about the person’s loyalty to the “correct” ideology. Given the natural limitations on human energy and effort, the most devoted enforcers of ideological orthodoxy will often enough have the least time for helping make life better for anyone.
As a result, “the poor” or “the working class” or “minorities” are no longer concrete realities; they become the elements of slogans we pronounce without concrete meaning, without rational argument, and without feeling the need for either. What the slogans represent is primarily one’s acceptance of the authority of the “in” crowd—what C.S. Lewis once termed “the Inner Ring.”
The Simulacrum of Reasoned Discourse in Ideological Junkspace
Architect Rem Koolhaas has coined the term “junkspace” to describe the “new flamboyant, flexible, forgettable face of architecture.” Junkspace is “what remains after modernization has run its course . . . Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown.”
Similarly, we might describe the modern media landscape as a kind of “junkspace”: what remains after the Enlightenment project of mutually enlightened rational discourse directed at the goal of perpetual cultural progress has run its course and suffered a final meltdown. The ideological posturing that remains is at once flamboyant (made for the gladiatorial arena of dueling television soundbites), flexible (one must be ready to change on a dime to fit the mood of the crowd), and forgettable (we are not meant to remember a person’s positions or promises from last year).
Postmodernist French thinker Jean Baudrillard has suggested that in modern society a “simulacrum” can become “hyperreal”: more real to many people than the reality itself. Think, for example, of the Mona Lisa: pictures of the painting have become so ubiquitous that they are “more real” to many people than the original painting itself. When people see the actual painting—which is quite small—some will say: “That doesn’t look like the Mona Lisa.”
So too we might say that the ideological slogans that float about in the “junkspace” of the modern media are also a “simulacrum” of rational discourse. We mistake it for real argument. As MacIntyre argues, it provides only a “semblance of rationality, but not its reality.” We are often enough not arguing about a particular topic, merely posturing to show which side of the ideological dividing line we are on.
Words, instead of serving as the instruments for expressing truth and sharing needed information about reality and the world, have become little more than linguistic avatars: ephemeral entities to be manipulated in the pursuit of power, position, or authenticity. Good Nietzscheans all, we hypermodernists enjoy unmasking the social idealism of others as fanciful delusions without stopping to wonder whether fanciful delusion is to be our, and our nation’s, fate. There is, I fear, a price to be paid for the post-modern linguistic games we are playing.
Tomorrow I will suggest what skills must be reintroduced into American education if we are to stop playing these dangerous games and restore the needed order within public discourse.
Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.