The Quality of Discourse is Low

23 03 2011

I don’t know why I bother reading comments. Not that the irrational ejaculations to my recent piece on The Drum about conservatism and climate change do anything but support my argument that many people judge first and ask question later.

But if there’s one thing that shines through from trawling comments is that the quality of discourse today is devilishly poor.

It’s not that I’m surprised that uninformed people pontificate as if they’re experts; that they presume to pigeon hole someone else, and subsequently dismiss them, on the basis of but a few words; that many take solace in their belief that they’re obviously the only intelligent one in the room, and those who disagree with them are clearly stupid; that the employment of fallacies is seen to be signal of wit; that reason and evidence feature so seldom in any expression of disagreement; that black and white trumps shades of grey.

I’m not surprised at all. But I am disappointed that we, as a culture, don’t consider these things to be heinously embarrassing transgressions of the norms of public discourse.

We’re confronting a sizable list of dilemmas facing humanity today. Yet our public discourse is so poisonous, so divisive, so destructive that we’re lucky anyone makes progress in their thinking at all.

We ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard of reason and conversation. We ought to consider fallacies to be faux pas. We ought to stop anyone who asserts without argument. We ought to be mortified if we are to let our irrational proclivities burst through the veil of reason.

That’s not to say everyone must be rational all the time. Only that we should not so readily forgive irrationality.

That so many believe ‘freedom of speech’ means ‘I have a right to say whatever tripe I believe whether it’s rational or not’ is not going to get us very far.

If people agree to hurl insults at each other, let them. But if we want to engage in a dialogue about serious questions, then we ought to be held to the base standards of rational discourse.

It begins with respect for all interlocutors, moves through to presenting thoughts backed by evidence and structured as an argument, tempered by an acknowledgement that we might be wrong, and that if proven so, we’re obliged to change our mind, and finished with humility.

Maybe I’m unrealistically optimistic or naive to believe the level of discourse can be improved. But I think it can.

At the very least it’ll help distinguish those who are serious about finding answers to tough questions, and those bile-charged individuals who are least qualified to provide solutions to the world’s toughest problems. We may never stop the zealots of unreason from having a voice, but we can at least diminish the import of their contributions, marginalise them until they’re forced to play by the rules of rational discourse or be struck mute by those with power to change the world.

It’ll take a while, but it has to begin somewhere. And if enough people adhere to the base standards of rational discourse, and politely embarrass those who don’t, and in doing so show that progress can be made on tough issues, then things might start to change. I’d like to see that happen.

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9 responses

23 03 2011
James Gray

Are you kidding? Even philosophers will give silly comments. Sometimes it’s part of ordinary discourse and part of our difficulty in understanding each other. Comments are closer to casual conversation than writing something to be published. It’s meant to be messy, like playing in a sandbox with ideas.

Expecting anything of non-philosophers is pretty shocking.

The idea of comments is to (a) help people learn to reason better, (b) clarify misunderstandings, (c) find out how people understand us even when skimming what we have to say, and (d) be grateful to find the potentially rare insightful comment.

Blogging for the public is a sort of “advocacy.” What you do when you post on non-philosophy sites is trying to reach out to non-philosophers. That means (a) is going to often be the most important element found in comments. Commenting to the public can teach you just as much as you teach others, but it might not teach you something you expected to learn.

24 03 2011
Tom of the Sweetwater Sea

I am a non-philosopher but I hope to be one some day. I do the best I can.

24 03 2011
Tim Dean

James, you of all people I would think would want to raise the tone of public discourse. And I’m not suggesting we silence anyone or prevent irrational discourse, only that we make a distinction between the rational and irrational, and take their comments accordingly.

24 03 2011
James Gray

Yes, I didn’t want to imply otherwise. Raising the level of discourse is great, but we can only help one person at a time in a very slow process. Changing the level of discourse isn’t going to make comments on public forums more rational in general (unless you have a master plan that I don’t know about).

25 03 2011
Glen

My guess is the quality of discourse is better than it used to be, but yes, its still far from ideal. I work in an area where i analyze a number of developing countries from an economic perspective. And it’s striking to me that the quality of discourse is far higher in western countries than the media and public debate there.

I find there are a number of small blogs i read where the comments are very good. A blog like interfluidity has comments as good as the high quality posts and poor comments aren’t responded to. But once you reach a certain size you get flooded by people who want to express a partisan opinion, usually only very loosely related to the post. I’m not sure there’s anything to be done about that.

I liked your piece very much at the drum (which is how i found this blog). But unfortunately the majority of your thoughtful readers probably didn’t see any point of posting a comment, as there’s no real opportunity to engage with people with the size of that forum.

26 03 2011
suzook

Beautifully written and I agree – it is low. Having said that I’m immediately unsure what “low” means. Is it low with respect to the quality of your thoughts and your ability to articulate them? Or mine. Or are they low with respect to the thoughts of significant persons on the timeline of human history, i.e. Chomsky, Ockham or Socrates? Given that evolution occurs very slowly I’m guessing that Socrates and Epicurus had the same horsepower to play with as Chomsky and Pilger. If anything has changed it’s language and society. On the one hand that means we are exposed to the “bile”. On the other hand philosophers are no longer sentenced to death.

30 03 2011
JR

It’s more that the medium used gives a voice to people who are very opinionated, which is often people who are more interested in espousing their view rather than improving their view. Where in years gone by you would rarely hear their opinions as they would not make it into the clubs or groups that would discuss these concepts, nowadays they are free to pop in and dirty up the boards with uninformed views.

They’ve always been there, but now we don’t have such effective systems in place to filter out those who do not contribute rationally.

1 04 2011
suzook

A crude recap then; a) humanity is presenting poor communications skills, b) they were never that great and c), the Internet lets anyone chime in.

These observations can co-habit the same space reasonably well. Maybe they are even an example of acceptable discourse and have moved the collective understanding forward – by a single unit of progress!

Rational communications is a laudable thing. Go the Enlightenment! It’s not the only mechanism by which we move forward of course and even the Great Unwashed needs to be heard.

Are we performing poorly as a collective, relative to those who’ve gone before? Are we misusing the new tools that define and redefine that collective like never before? How do you measure our use of the Internet against generations that never had one?

2 06 2011
Caroline

I absolutely agree. What really irritates me is that people nowadays refuse to accept opinions other than their own. Instead of considering other perspectives, they get into a big huff about how they’re right and how we must be the wrong ones. It seems as though pride gets in the way all the time during disagreements as people can’t stand to be wrong or that there might be another perspective. If we want to improve the quality of our debates, then it must be a rational one in which each side at least respects one another. While we may hold different opinions, at the end of the day we have to realize we’re different individuals who all have varying opinions…and that life does come in shades of grey.

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