On the Death of Civil Discourse
I wrote most of this Monday September 26th, the day of the first Presidential Debate.
Today I finished reading Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem, and now I’m on to her essay collection: Philosophy: Who Needs it? In Philosophy, Rand simply tears apart the worn social fabric of our society, and I deeply regret not giving it a read sooner. Logic and reason do not hold the esteemed position in our country today that they once did in Ancient Greece, and Rand laments this fact, with her main thesis of the book appearing to be that irrational, obedient, altruistic thought is at the core of many social ills today. This made me think back to a fellow libertarian’s assertions that today’s kids are raised to be emotive, neurotic, reactionary adults instead of rational thinkers who are in control of their own emotions, and after a bit of historical reflection, I have come to fear that this may be true not only of today’s kids, but of yesterday’s kids as well. Although they may not be millennials, I am quite certain that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will exemplify this descent into irrationality on the debate stage tonight, as will their audience. Believe it or not, it was not long ago that debaters on the presidential debate stage referred to each other as “my opponent” and debated ideologies instead of stooping to personal attacks. But civil discourse appears to be dying in America, and there seems to be little chance of bringing it back to life.
Have you ever wondered why it came to be that in our culture, religion and politics are the two things you are just not supposed to bring up in everyday conversation? Many would argue that the reason for this is that they are just too divisive. But that in fact is not the real reason. Plenty of other subjects are even more divisive, like “What kind of music are you into?” and, “what’s your favorite color?” People take very different sides regarding both issues, but rarely will that result in gnashing of teeth or bitterness. Political opinions and religious beliefs, just like favorite colors, are matters of preference, but voicing your thoughts on political or religious matters too often brings forth anger and hostility. This is not due solely to their divisive nature, but to the learned nature of Americans to get angry when their opinions are challenged. The more deeply held the belief or opinion, the more angry they will get. Democracy amplifies this phenomenon, because with it, our political opinions can actually manifest themselves as policy and affect each other’s lives. Although this may raise the stakes of public discourse, it need not put an end to civil discourse. We would do well to remember that respecting other’s political positions can help us gain more respect for our own, and in any case, attacks on our ideologies should not be taken personally. Remaining cognizant of these maxims will help keep the free market for ideas running smoothly as we use our powers of reason to weed out bad ideas and promote good ones, instead of yielding to our emotions and derailing the entire process.
Turn on your TV at literally any time of the day and what you will see are symptoms of an absurd culture. Many will repeat whatever they hear on CNN or Fox News without questioning the validity of the sound bytes they so quickly internalize, and millions tune in to watch the trainwreck of Kim Kardashian’s life every single week. People worship and gossip about celebrities they will never even meet, but if you ask the question, “which is a reflection of which, TV or our society?” I think you are asking the wrong question. Both influence each other, and this creates a very disturbing positive feedback loop.
I believe I have seen real evidence of this in my own life. When I was younger, Keeping up with the Kardashians did not exist. The Presidential debates were nowhere near as heated as they are now, and I think this descent into madness has been going on for a very long time. Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR cannot hold a candle to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington as far as rational thinking goes. This brings me to an interesting hypothesis. According to a Western Civilization professor whose waste-of-time gen ed I was forced to take, one evident, enduring trait of Western Culture is a longing for “the good old days.” Is it possible that, without even realizing it, when we long for the good old days we’re really just longing for a more rational society?
Humans tend to model the behavior of their superiors, and now, in a very complex society, they have more superiors than ever before, and thanks to masss media, they see them more than ever before. How many housewives and housedads tune in to watch Whoopi Goldberg and Elizabeth Hasselback yell at each other over whether or not black people should be allowed to say the N-word on The View? (yes this actually happened) Too many, that’s the answer. How many kids are tuning into Basketball Wives LA where they are learning to argue over pretty much anything that comes to mind and hold ridiculous grudges against each other for buying the same romper? Probably more than we’d think, and unfortunately some of those kids may grow up to fill the shoes of some meaner, madder basketball wives. This gigantic feedback loop continues every day of the year all over the world, slowly turning us back into animals.
The prevalence of alcohol and bingedrinking culture add some very hot flames to the fire, as we’re all taught by our society to actually go out and betray our capacity to reason every single weekend. The side effects, nay, direct effects, are more rape, more fights, more accidents, more arguments, more everything that’s more animalistic.
America’s favorite drugs really do combine to create a cacophony of insanity. Alcohol makes us irrational on the weekend, while caffeine and cigarettes provide the buzz to keep us worker bees going (but not the mental drive of course). Sugar, though not a drug, keeps us happy, lazy, and clouded in the mind while simultaneously killing us. Anti-depression pharmaceuticals either keep us from killing ourselves when an increasingly meaningless and shallow society gives us ever more reason to do so, or they ruin our minds or actually just kill us. I could go on but I think I’ve made my point.
The Age of Reason is over and has been for quite some time. The world is badly in need of rational philosophy, and it saddens me to think of just how much more could have been accomplished if some of the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers had never been forgotten. While many might respond that they haven’t been forgotten, as Aristotle and Plato’s works are still read in school, they are missing my point.
Society has forgotten reason, and we can trace many social ills back to this fact, a point Ayn Rand tried her best to hammer home in her lifetime. Too many Americans are content to simply stay at home and vent their frustrations by watching people lose their minds on TV or engaging in Facebook flame wars where bruised egos fuel “debate.” They argue over memes instead of getting up and trying to live their dreams. Of course you can’t really blame them as it’s not easy to be a particularly vivacious human being when you consume 200g of refined poison (sugar) everyday and mitigate the effects of which with caffeine. We live in an era of poisoned bodies and poisoned minds. The remedy for the bodies is obvious, but for the minds it is unfortunately not. Reason is the medicine for the mind, and our emotion driven — and at times hysterical — society needs to start taking it.