A Lament on the Declining Quality of Public Discourse

In view of the two recent presidential debates I find these words of Plato remarkable:

They think they are having not a quarrel but a conversation, because they are unable to examine what has been said by dividing it up according to its forms. Hence, they pursue mere verbal contradictions of what has been said and have a quarrel rather than a conversation. (Republic, Bk V)

A debate naturally has something in common with a quarrel. In both, each side seeks to come out on top. Yet ultimately a debate, even a political one, should not be a fight—and certainly not a brawl; it is designed, or should be, to bring about a broader knowledge of what candidates hold on important issues. Done well, it should also advance the public understanding and conversation about these issues.

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Plato saw that good conversations are at the center of both public and private life.  The political good is too rich and complex to be achieved without quality public discourse, especially in a democracy. Friendship too can only exist where there is quality private discourse.

Yet it is striking how appearance can overwhelm reality. We are being trained that all that really matters is whether it looks like you’re right—not whether you actually are. Or more, it’s not even about seeming to be right, but seeming to be in control, suave, and strong. Words become bludgeons, tools to manipulate. Speakers are reduced to actors, playing a part in a charade.

There is of course a place for the art of rhetoric in discourse, especially public discourse. But at the end of the day, discourse is not combat; it should not be about winning but about communication, and coming to some truth.

Alasdair McIntyre has famously pointed to the degenerate state of moral discourse in our society. The presidential debates are perhaps too easy a target to illustrate this point. But while an extreme example, they nonetheless reveal much about the broader habits of discourse in public and even private life.

It is hard to know whether the dearth of good public conversation is cause or effect of the dearth of good private conversation. It is probably both. We have lost confidence in the power of reason to get at the heart of things, to sort out what matters. And so sloganing, propagandizing, pandering, advertising, bullying, and moralizing replace and push aside rational discourse in all corners of our life.

For whom we vote, what brands we purchase, what we wear, what we eat, and even what medicines we take, tend to be determined without critical rational consideration—even though we experience ourselves as “thinking about things.” The social consequences are too many to enumerate.

Perhaps less immediately noticeable and traceable is the damage the paralysis of our rationality causes in our personal relationships.

Aristotle saw that the beating heart of any true friendship is real conversation. Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, has distinguished between a conversation and a quarrel, a distinction that is perhaps most felt in our more intimate relationships.

A quarrel is characterized by dissension. “No,” the quarreler in effect says, “that does not fit with what I’m thinking.” The prism through which I see the other’s words is whether they fit with my own thought. The thoughts of the other are not considered in themselves, in their integrity.

So quarrels train us to distrust those with whom we speak; we learn to protect ourselves. And this particularly by going on the offensive. Quarrelers are thus necessarily driven apart, not drawn together, by the words they speak.

A conversation on the other hand is characterized by looking-together, and coming together. When there is disagreement, as there commonly will be, the one person says in effect, “I’m trying to see how what you’re saying fits with what I’m thinking.” The very effort to do this draws people together, even when they do not understand why or what the other is thinking.

Plato says of those who quarrel that “they are unable to examine what has been said by dividing it up according to its forms.”  He does not indicate the root of this inability. I think we can say it has a twofold root: one rational, the other affective.

A basic knowledge of logic and a certain facility with reasoning significantly enhances our ability to converse, to make personal connection through understanding each other’s thoughts. Thinking about deep matters is never easy; and the conversation of friends always involves deep matters. I tell my liberal arts students that one of the greatest fruits of their education will be the ability to communicate better with the people they love most.

The affective side here is easy to overlook. Am I willing to make the effort—and it will ultimately require patient, persevering effort—to see the situation from the other person’s perspective? Love supplies the willingness, and it must bear fruit in a hard-won inner disposition to listen; really to listen.

Yet even a loving willingness to listen, combined with a discerning rationality, is not quite enough. All good conversation, public or private, requires shared principles as a foundation. For too long we have tried to avoid bringing up first principles in the public forum. Perhaps we have erred in our judgment that we could seek consensus in practical matters, or even some shared understanding, while avoiding deeper matters, such as: the existence of a human nature, natural law, divine sovereignty over human life and the environment, the human end of economics, etc.

Our approach to public discourse, as well as to our private discourse, should give evidence of the importance of going back to first truths: truths not yet sufficiently understood, and so constantly revisited. Rather than veiling basic convictions, we can seek to express them better, while also seeking a deeper understanding of them.

Our experience in the public square, as well as in serious friendships, and certainly marriage, makes abundantly clear just how much is required to come to a meeting of minds, and so a meeting of persons. Dominant cultural habits today are working against us: we downplay truth, and the power of reason to answer the most basic questions of life, and we neglect the greatest minds of our civilization, and the arts and sciences they discovered.

And perhaps even worse, we do not put a premium on forming the moral dispositions and on protecting the physical contexts for personal presence, both of which are necessary for having real conversations, and for living in relationship with others.

Truth is about relationships; and relationships are about truth.

Changing the nature of public discourse might seem a bridge too far. But it is at least in our power to form habits and contexts for conversation, not quarrels.

(Photo credit: AP Photo/John Locher)


  • John A. Cuddeback

    John A. Cuddeback is Professor and Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. His book Friendship: The Art of Happiness was republished in 2010 as True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. His writings have appeared in Nova et Vetera, and The Thomist, as well as in several volumes published by the American Maritain Association. He lives with his wife Sofia and their six children in the shadow of the Blue Ridge on the banks of the Shenandoah. He blogs at BaconFromAcorns.com

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