The issue of improved public discourse is, ultimately, the most important of all political issues, for it is in the final analysis the means by which reason and justice prevail over irrationality and bigotry, within each of us as well as throughout society. Discourse is challenged along many dimensions: civility, robustness, depth, subtlety, inclusiveness, rationality, factual accuracy, scope, precision, and quantity of information mobilized and assimilated. How kind is it? How productive is it? How well-informed is it? All of these are relevant dimensions to be constantly improved upon.
Discourse takes many forms. As I wrote recently, perhaps one of its most useful and probing forms is satire (Tragically Comical American Political Discourse). Humor can be revealing, as well as enjoyable, and is often most provocative of deep insights of all discursive forms. From Gulliver’s Travels (in which Jonathan Swift gave us the term “yahoos”) to Slaughterhouse Five and Catch 22, and beyond, satire often hits the nail right on the head, and leaves us with a smile on our faces while doing so. That’s as good as it gets.
But discourse fights against many dysfunctional structural inhibitors and disinhibitors. Those with the largest audiences are often either incentivized to censor themselves or to inflame uninformed passions. Those who depend on endearing the many and offending as few as possible must avoid taboo topics and controversial positions as much as they are able to, while those who depend on appealing to and cultivating a loyal following must do just the opposite, and pander to their target market (whether sincerely or insincerely), reinforcing and helping to insulate prejudices and unreasoning passions. This bifurcates the most loudly broadcast voices into those that are sterilized by political and strategic considerations, and those that are contaminated by demagoguery.
Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff argued in his book The Political Mind that we need a new Enlightenment, one which does not try to advance the cause of Reason simply by recourse to rational arguments, but one which embraces new insights into how our minds work, and seeks to advance the cause of Reason along the avenues carved out by those insights (recognizing the roles of frames and narratives, of primary and complex metaphors, and working with them in advocacy of Reason and Empathy). But the old Enlightenment still holds its lessons, some of which we should continue to learn from.
The Economist recently published a review of Philipp Blom’s book (to be released in March): “Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendship in Pre-Revolutionary Paris” (http://www.economist.com/node/17358838). The theme of the book is those Enlightenment philosophes who convened in salons to discuss all matters, some of whom refuted the existence of God, despite the dangers of doing so. It was not, overall, a more courageous time than our own, and it was not a time when more people were willing to question the existence of God (Biologist Richard Dawkins, for instance, is one of many famous modern atheists, while Blom critiques some famous philosophes for their own failures to publicly entertain non-religious perspectives). But it is instructive that those committed to reason were discussing over two hundred years ago a reasonable but historically persecuted point of view that is little more tolerated today than it was then.
For the record, I am not saying that I consider atheism to be the final word on the subject (I don’t; I consider the truth to be far subtler, and far less dismissive of the sublime aspects of reality that concepts of divinity address). I am saying that atheism’s continued absence from most spheres of public discourse, along with the absence of subtler but equally unconventional views (e.g., pantheism, Taoist/Buddhist non-anthropomorphic mysticism, etc.), and the continued hold over public discourse and public cognition that the generally reductionist, absolutist, and somewhat superstitious bias of insitutionalized religions continues to command, are evidence of a public discourse unhealthily constrained by cognitive, social, and institutional forces that hinder rather than facilitate a robust and comprehensive public dialogue.
In other words, we continue to put informal “Inquisitions” between ourselves and the pursuit of truth. Galileo, who was basically accurate on every topic he addressed, and certainly more accurate than the Church, was subjected to torture by the Inquisition until he recanted his assertion that Copernicus was right, and the Earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa. And my own career as a teacher ended when I faced my own Inquisition for having compared cultural to genetic diffusion and innovation in a World Geography class (though I remain convinced that it was one of the best lesson plans my students had ever been exposed to).
Religion isn’t the only topic around which informal barriers to discourse are thrown up, nor do such barriers need to be society-wide to contribute to the constriction and impoverishment of public discourse. Some current trends in political discourse are contributing to further constriction, though in a more balkanized manner. Those with strong ideological views listen to and talk with those of similar views, and avoid those of conflicting views, sometimes quite explicitly (one left-wing ideologue, in a post on SquareState, said he was interested in reasonable criticisms, defined as things unlike what I say, which are too incompatible with his worldview to count as “reasonable”). The “confirmation bias” already making cross-fertilization of differing views difficult, is reinforced by the ability now to get news from, and engage in discourse with, those who already agree with us, making it that much easier to filter out contradictory evidence and analysis. Instead of a society-wide constriction of public discourse, we have a balkanized constriction, in which occasional debates across ideological borders quickly degenerate into angry mutual denouncements and insults.
A sociologist named Mark Granovetter wrote a paper in the 1970′s or 1980′s called “The Strength of Weak Ties,” in which he discussed the value of those network connections that form bridges between social (and ideological) islands. He was writing in a different era (strange as it may seem that so much has changed in so short a time), but captured a truth that transcends the form that our social coalescences take. We still need “weak ties,” bridges across social, cultural, and ideological chasms. We still need some threads of authentic social interaction, authentic dialogue, among as well as within our ideological enclaves.
There should be no taboos, particularly no taboos regarding modes of thought that do not preach hatred or antagonism of any kind. There should be no privileging of fixed ideologies. We need to work as a people toward promoting a society-wide public discourse that does not presuppose the conclusions, neither on the left nor the right nor in any other location of our complex ideological space. We need to continue to cultivate a commitment to reason, to analysis, to reliance on carefully acquired and verifiable information. No political challenge is more important, no advance more beneficial to our long-term collective welfare than advances in our ability to participate in a robust and unconstrained public discourse, with reason, humility, and goodwill as our guiding lights.