Saturday, April 26, 2008

Talking to Ourselves by Susan Jacoby

Americans are increasingly close-minded
and unwilling to listen to opposing views.

As dumbness has been defined downward in American public life during the last two decades, one of the most important and frequently overlooked culprits is the public's increasing reluctance to give a fair hearing -- or any hearing at all -- to opposing points of view.


Duncan said...

I recently found myself required to give reasons to a friend for not wishing to attend a lecture by Mozzam Begg on Git Mo in Cambridge. I explained that (it being exam term and all, and my selectiveness increased) there wasn't really much point in me going because;

1) I already agreed with the central point: Guantanamo Bay is very bad and should be shut down.
2) I felt it unlikely he would challenge any of my views about Guantanamo and in so far as he did they would be on subjects of jurisprudence or political philosophy vis punishment which I knew a priori it would not be likely for me to budge.
3) Any information he gave about the exact goings on would be suspect, as there simply aren't the same constraints upon what he says as there are on e.g. what a mainstream journalist can say or what a conservative who wishes to shut down Guantanamo contra the opinion of his peer group will say. In other words, I'd be more likely to listen to what the Falun Gong protesters had to say if they didn't insist on the whole 'the Chinese army eats babies/puts babies on spikes' nonsense - their information isn't reliable. Begg's surely is, but is less so than one more constrained by the forces of interest or scrutiny.

In reading your article, I found myself wondering what my reaction would be if I lived in America. Anyone who has watched an American University debating team perform (and I'm being serious here) knows that the standard of Forensics in America is incredibly, profoundly poor: it is mostly just a matter of rhetorical ploys, appeals to certain phrases which have entered the common vernacular and unnecessary histrionics (the kind of nonsense Dinesh D'Souza practices - shouting and so on). This appears to be what passes in your culture, at the moment, for debate. This is very sad when you can log on to youtube or whatever and watch clips of Firing Line and see William Buckley defend the indefensible in a rigorous and precise manner.

If my experience of public speakers in America is that they can't be trusted to be reliable sources of information (and from the looks of it, that's the situation) then why would I want to go and see a speaker advocating a position I didn't share. That's not to say there's any point listening to a speaker I agreed with either; I'd probably stay home and read a book. The point is; the prevalence you see in America of people 'only listening to speakers they antecedently agree with' is actually, so it seems to me, symptomatic of a different problem and that is the appallingly low level of rigor of public debate in America.

That is of course anti-intellectualism of a sort, but it's of a different sort than the one you identify. It isn't that people are (contra the norms of intellectual virtue) failing to seek out opinions that differ from their own, but rather that they perceive (quite rightly) that most of those they see attempting to sell such views do so disingenuously by one form of sophistry or another, and as such are disinclined to waste their time.

Here is a test: Kevin James was revealed on Chris Matthews to be, by his own admission, a sophist, a gasbag and a fraud. If you ever see Kevin James appear on a programme - whatever programme - again; you should cease watching it. Because it holds itself to so low a standard that it will invite on people shown to be bullshitters (in Frankfurt's technical sense) to offer their 'opinions': you can learn NOTHING from such a programme.

Contemporary America's intellectual ills are multitudinous but from the looks of it they include the following:

1) The perception that education is some rare commodity only accessible by some anointed minority (reinforced, naturally, by the pundits who make their living off this delusion).

2) The willingness to settle for a weak or passing acquaintance with actual knowledge; coupled with the illusion that learning about say politics doesn't involve the same level of difficulty and training that, say, running a marathon does.

3) An abysmally poor understanding of informal logic, coupled with such mollycoddling notions as a) everyone is entitled to their own opinion, b) political, moral and religious views are specially privileged in being beyond question, c) it is enough to have an opinion without having to offer any kind of robust reasons for holding said opinion.

4) A general intellectual laziness, paralleling certain excesses of sloth in other parts of the society, manifesting in the idea that argument is really all about 'winning' rather than deserving to win. About beating down your opponent by whatever means necessary rather than a social, cooperative process to seek the truth by adversarial means employed by opponents who employ the same methods and are aiming at the same objective.

At the moment, and I'm not even joking here, one of the people doing the most to counter this dangerous trend in Jon Stewart. If you want a perfect illustration of (4), do yourself a favour and rewatch Jon's appearance on Crossfire, which can be found on Youtube. "You're doing theatre, when you should be doing debate." "You have a responsibility to the public discourse and you fail miserably." - Jon Stewart knows the score.

(In passing, I apologise for misusing the term rhetoric in the above, which really doesn't help matters. True rhetoric is constrained by truth but incorporates within it the understanding that arguments should and must be tailored to the audience. Understood in these terms, American public debate actually needs more rhetoric rather than less, but the term is obviously understood colloquially to mean something else, and I couldn't find an appropriate synonym. 'Bluster' maybe.)

Riley said...

I wonder if the difference between Americans today and in the past, is that today the opinions (and propaganda) of pundits are all but forced upon us. Today we are bombarded by the thoughts and opinions of people with which we disagree. One might think: I already understand the arguments and opinions of those with whom I disagree, why should I seek out more of such opinions? In fact isn't that what we are led to believe? The news media sells it's product on the notion that it is presenting a "fair and balanced" view of opposing viewpoints. By stitching together snippets and sound-bits of what appear to be representative viewpoint of the other side, the views of the other side appear to be brought to us.

In this multitasking all-you-can-eat buffet-style "information age" of ours, we are sold the illusion of being informed. In this regard, I think we are justified in pointing a finger at the "Media", and holding them to blame in part.

The consolidated and vertically integrated mass "media" in this country have created an environment of data noise that makes it difficult to differentiate quality information from junk. It's hard to know what source to look to in order to hear a thoughtful and in-depth representative opinion on a political point of view. No matter how complex the issue, the debate it seems has been reduced to merely two polarized "sides" which spend more money and time attacking that one other side than they do defining (beyond platitude) the merits of their own.

I'm increasing of the opinion that a considerable amount of the problem comes from the fact that America is defacto, a two party state. The three-way intersection of "information age", mass media, and two party politics creates a political market-place that especially favors personal-attack over issue-advocacy. This would not be as much (or as often) the case I think in a non-parliamentary multi-party state.

In a field of a half-dozen candidates, the cost of attack-politics exceeds the benefit. Spending overmuch time attacking one of the other candidates benefits the other four candidates as much as it does the person doing the attacking. In the meantime, the attacking candidate is not promoting himself or herself, and worse, by attacking is likely increasing his or her own "negatives".

The mechanics of our pluralistic voting system prevents the emergence of viable third parties in America. I wonder if something as simple as adopting an instant-runoff voting system (or some other system that would similarly benefit multiple candidacy) couldn't go a long way to improving the state of "ignorant single-mindedness" in America. At least I think this would be a least cost, greatest impact approach to the issue.