ARGUMENT CLINIC

The inestimable Fr. Neuhaus points out what Dave at Oklahoma Lefty was lamenting the other day: There is no such thing as civil discourse on important issues anymore. Just anti-intellectuals yelling obscenities at each other, then, after they can’t think of anything else to yell, merely trying to shut each other up.

Dave encountered this in discussions about different religions, Fr. Neuhaus observes it in politics. It seems we’re actually regressing as a society. There was a day when people could disagree respectfully, and actually be friends at the same time. I’ve been reading Heretics by GK Chesterton this week, and one of the things that jumps out at me is the high esteem he holds for many of the people he so vehemently disagrees with. He and Bernard Shaw carried on for years, simultaneously disagreeing and engaging in mutual admiration. Throughout his writings it is evident Chesterton has genuine affection for Shaw, and vice-versa. Where do we see that happening today? Nowhere outside the Carville/Matalin residence, it seems; we can’t even be sure about that (one never knows, it could all be an act. As the great Philosopher BB King once said, “Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’ me too”).

It was said of Thomas Aquinas (by Chesterton, oddly enough) that he engaged in controversy with two goals: Clarity and Courtesy. Not only for the sake of moral rectitude, but because it made for more persuasive argument. What we have today is not intellectual give-and-take designed to persuade and inform. What we have today is the intellectual equivalent of trench warfare: firmly entrenched sides who lack the imagination to anything apart from make the occasional suicidal charge.

It would be easy to blame it on the media (CNN, Fox – I’m looking in your direction), but it also has to do with a general lack of common courtesy in society as a whole (whatever ‘society’ means). Politeness and courtesy are hugely underrated virtues. They are the oil which keeps the engine of a culture from overheating and blowing up. Want to be a hero? Teach a child basic manners. You’ll be doing more for the world than you can possibly imagine.

The lack of civil discourse also has to do with the fact that politics (and to some degree, religion) has been overtaken by that most loathsome of all human creatures: the power-hungry demagogue. Those with no desire to serve, but rather to be served. This type of “leader” doesn’t want truth to win out, and will go to any lengths to squelch it. Unless, by some fluke, the truth temporarily suits them. Either way, dissenting voices are snuffed out by any means necessary: obfuscation, slander, prosecution, murder – whatever it takes. Thank God we only seem to be interested in the first three in this country. For now.

And so, since (to quote Gandhi) “We must be the change we want to see in the world”, I’m going to try to do my part to raise the level of discourse around here. Just in case somebody listens to me some day.

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