Socrates and modern America


in Canada, Politics, Rants, The environment

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 John’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 that…,’ 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”.

Socrates’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.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan January 13, 2010 at 8:18 pm

I think it’s a huge mistake to assume that discourse produces policies. In false democracies like ours there is a huge gap between public opinion and government policy – policies are far to the left of opinion, presumably because policies reflect the interest of the elites rather than the voters. If a similar gap exists with respect to climate change, we shouldn’t expect policy until the interests of the general population with respect to climate change come into line with short term elite interests.

“Discourse”, or at least what we call discourse, is mostly propaganda and distraction – not what Socrates would call dialogue.

. January 14, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Many Americans do not understand that the Russian wheat belt is the steppe, which has hotter summers, colder winters and less rain than even the relatively arid Great Plains. There is not a common understanding that the histories of China and Europe are replete with genocidal conflicts because different nationalities were located too close together, or that the African plateaus hinder economic development. Instead there is a general understanding that the United States has been successful for more than two centuries and that the rest of the world has been less so. Americans do not treasure the “good times” because they see growth and security as the normal state of affairs, and Americans are more than a little puzzled as to why the rest of the world always seems to be struggling. And so what Americans see as normal day-to-day activities the rest of the world sees as American hubris.

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