Whoever originally coined the phrase “war of words” was on to something. Public discourse is an oxymoron. It may be words said in public, but it’s not by any means a discussion. Whether it be online, on TV, or outdoor demonstrations, we have lost the societal capacity for discussion. Fueled and facilitated in part by the hot medium of television, words said in public are intended not to further discussion and understanding, but to defeat the enemy. A defeat not often won by reason but by volume.
In today’s rhetorical climate, one does not have interlocutors, conversationalists, or dialogists. One has opponents and enemies. One can no longer simply disagree, one must be disagreeable. Signs of civility toward the “other side” is a sure sign of treason. You disagree with me, therefore I must hate you.
Admittedly I am painting with broad strokes. My point here is not to prove that such heated rhetoric is the norm (though I believe it is), nor that reasoned and respectful debate among civil and even friendly coequal conversationalists is rare (though I believe that, too). Rather, what I want to do here is to understand why in our climate today we cannot simply agree to disagree with a fellow rational human being, we must rather defeat an opponent.
Two words: passions and power.
By passions, I mean those tendencies and inclinations within us which exert an attractional force to things that are mortal and sinful. Passions often distort legitimate desires toward sinful ends. For example, it is legitimate and normal to eat when one feels hungry. Passions distort this desire so that one does not merely eat to satisfy one’s hunger and promote one’s health. Rather, one behaves in gluttonous ways, eating to the point of even discomfort and nausea, or binging on foods that are unhealthy for us.
By power, I mean the control over our own destinies. In our world, that means control over the tools of social coercion. Preeminently that means political power, though it also means media control as political power is amassed through the tools which are at the disposal of media, itself a prominent coercive force in a culture in which the passions are elevated as norms instead of distortions.
In this context, then, the normative desire to see truth prevail in a dialogue is distorted by the passions to see my cause prevail, even if “my cause” happens not to be the truth. Indeed, in a context in which the passions prevail, truth is the first casualty in this war of words. No longer is the goal to have truth prevail through the norms of reasoned discourse, but rather to have my desires prevail through the distortions of power.
Therefore, if one’s erstwhile interlocutor is in opposition to your “cause” he has become an enemy opposed to your ability to control your destiny and to get what you want. And if an enemy . . . well, all’s fair.
Furthermore, if the war of words has descended from the respectful debate of coequals to get at the truth to the impassioned battle for the power to get what you want, then it will not do simply to disagree with one’s enemy. To the impassioned soul, such a humble response appears weak and ineffectual. It becomes a zero sum game. All or nothing.
This is why the rhetoric of talk radio and television (progressive and conservative), of politics, and increasingly of the academy, has moved further away from reasoned debate to ad hominem, “poisoning the well,” “straw man,” and other diversions. When one gives up on reason, all that one can do is attack one’s opponent instead of deal with one’s argument. When one gives up on reason, all that one can do is distort one’s opponent’s position and attack the distortion. Impugn the motives. Attack the sanity. The more extreme the better. To say that one’s opponents sometimes shouts and curses is not enough. No, he must be said to snack on the unicorn wishes of little children while they slumber. The more absurd the more believable.
Our politicians don’t merely have different policy positions. No, rather, their policy positions must result in the end of the world as we know it. Having been through the administrations of several such politicians in our lifetimes, without the end of the world, we still find ourselves snookered into the claim and the hysteria that goes along with it. The previous administration must not merely be wrong, it must be evil. The present administration must not merely be incompetent, it must be treasonous.
The end of such “debate” is not simply a coarsening of our civil discourse and of ourselves. The end of such debate is far worse than that. It is the instituting of hell on earth as we draw the lines of division ever narrower and raise the walls ever higher until there is no unity, no intimacy, no transparency, but only and ever calculation and objectification. It will end in a world not in which there is not merely a lack of mercy and therefore of justice, but far worse. It will end in a world in which evil is called good; in which exploitation is called compassion.
There is, however, a way out. Yes, of course, to turn off and tune out the rhetoric. The human spirit is robust, and like the human body, when the toxins are removed, the deep capacity for self-repair kicks in. But more importantly to enclose the passions within the prayerful regimen of askesis. Yes, fast from television. But also fast. The Church Fathers knew that as the virtues are entertwined and the development of one virtue gave rise to the development of the other virtues, so too the disciplining of one passion (or vice) gave rise to the disciplining of the remaining passions. When one defeated gluttony, one defeated lust. Having defeated gluttony and lust, one could move on to defeat pride and vainglory and acedia.
It is doubtless a bit simplistic, but one wonders if it were possible to get Washington to fast from meat, eggs and dairy on Wednesdays and Fridays whether or not we would see more respect and honesty between political interlocutors.
[Note: Next time–On faith, knowledge and hope and the bridging of the past and future in the present.]