In their always-worthwhile Christmas issue, The Economist has an article on what Socrates might think of the state of discourse in the United States, especially political discourse:
In 1968 Stringfellow Barr, an historian and president of St Johnâ€™s College in Maryland, wrote a Socratic critique of American discourse: “There is a pathos in television dialogue: the rapid exchange of monologues that fail to find the issue, like ships passing in the night; the reiterated preface, ‘I think thatâ€¦,’ as if it mattered who held which opinion rather than which opinion is worth holding; the impressive personal vanity that prevents each ‘discussant’ from really listening to another speaker”.
Socratesâ€™s alternative was “good” conversation or dialectic. To converse originally meant to turn towards one another, in order to find a common humanity and to move closer to the truth of something. Dialectic, in other words, is decidedly not about winning or losing, because all the conversants are ennobled by it. It is a joint search. Unfortunately, as Mr Barr put it, it is also “the most difficult” kind of conversation “especially for Americans to achieve”.
Quite possibly, the worst discourse of all is that surrounding climate change, both in the United States and Canada. People deny that it is happening or suggest absurd causes, they interpret policies to reduce its severity in absurd and hyperbolic ways, and they singularly fail to either convey the most important aspects of the issue to the observing public or engage one another in meaningful discussion.
We have to hope that the climate isn’t as sensitive as the scientists endorsing a 350 part per million target believe; if so, we will probably toast the planet long before our discourse on climate change reaches a level of maturity sufficient to generate good policies.