Friday, October 10, 2008

The Decline in Logical Argument

The most crippling aspect of modern democracy is the decline in logical argument.

Logical argument was the invention of the Greeks, along with theatre (once used to bolster the free flow of ideas), philosophy, and Western democracy. All four of these contributions to civilization are posed against the blind acceptance of (or faith in) the dictates of authority and power.

In the first century of the American nation, political debates were actual debates—with set positions argued for and counter-arguments defended against. How great would it be now for seekers of high office to debate a single issue, such as the role of the middle classes in American society or the best policy towards foreign dictators!

At one time, argument permeated the social scene, with party invitations’ commonly instructing invitees to bone up on set topics in preparation for speaking on them with other guests. The middle-brow Circuit Chautauqua, nineteenth-century traveling shows, featured lectures on various topics from prison reform to memory improvement, mixed with band music and Metropolitan Opera singers, followed by question-and-answer sessions involving members of the community.

Much is made of the role of Faith in early American culture, but seldom is Argument credited for promoting progress and establishing America’s character and self-confidence. Ultimately, it was argument, not faith, that abolished slavery, expanded voting rights, and established the 40-hour work week.

By argument, I do not mean shouting people down. I do not see argument in the harangues of Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly. I would not count the glib sarcasm of Stephen Colbert and Al Franken, entertaining and valuable as it is, as argument. Oprah Winfrey, though a goddess of common sense, mainly exhorts and inspires—she rarely, if ever anymore, uses her show as a meeting-place for opposing opinions, as the old Phil Donahue and Dick Cavett shows used to do (and HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher still attempts to do).

Argument requires a forum, where differences in opinion are expected, respected, and encouraged in the interest of forming a more complete understanding of the issues under debate.

Argument requires clarification of the dividing lines between opposing positions. It requires a focus on logic and facts as proofs for the rightness of one’s position.

Argument requires that probability, not certainty and not mere possibilities, be put to the test, “proof” meaning, quite simply, the test that an opinion is put to—by speakers and listeners alike.

Today America is full of opinions, but few Americans know how to back them up. Few Americans feel comfortable expressing their opinions, convinced that blithe agreeableness is preferable to taking a position—while others think that bull-headed pontification requires no further explanation or proof.

Things have gotten so bad that to take any position at all more complicated or unusual than what can fit on a bumper sticker smacks of extremism—or crackpotism.

The old adage forbidding discussion of religion and politics at the dinner table has now morphed into “Let’s just agree to disagree,” a more polite way of saying, “Shut up—I’m not interested in your reasons for disagreeing with me.”

Now that nobody expects anyone to back up anything he or she says in public, all kinds of bullshit pass for intelligent commentary these days. Idiocy is justified on the grounds that idiots sincerely believe in their idiocy.

Sincerity and good intentions are things we cannot evaluate or judge from outside. Facts, logic, and clarity of expression are things we can observe and make judgments on. As long as sincerity counts more than proof, humanity will not see further progress.

The sincerity of your belief and hope for the future is admirable, but what exactly are you saying, and how can you back it up?

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