use your words

Right now one of the leading stories in the news is about the impasse over raising the “ceiling” of the American federal debt. It’s turned into a game of political chicken, with the deadline now only four days away, at least notionally. Here in Vancouver, some expatriate Americans have been glued to their TV sets, following the vicissitudes of the story.

For what it’s worth, my own view is that the issue is somewhat of a phony one, in the sense that the United States has already been “defaulting” on its public debt for some time now, in the form of creating enormous quantities of new dollars (under the euphemism “quantitative easing”) and paying creditors with those. Paying your debts with money that is worth 20% less than the money you borrowed is no different from paying back your debts at only 80 cents on the dollar, but it’s slow and stealthy rather than abrupt and obvious, and that makes it easier to do.

The point I wanted to address though is about the quality of debate on the issue. I haven’t paid much attention to it, but last night on the (Canadian) news a commentator was being interviewed, and when asked about what the cause of the impasse was, he said that the “blame” lay clearly with right-wing Republicans in the House. And there it is, I thought: the “discussion” of the issue really doesn’t go beyond finger-pointing and blame.

I recall reading a talk given by the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler about the theory of evolution on the 1950s TV series he hosted on the Great Ideas. Even at that time the question of Darwinism vs. the Bible was a contentious topic in the United States. But I was struck by one of Adler’s opening remarks, to the effect that, before entering into the debate, we each need to ask ourselves, and answer honestly, this question: Do I have an open mind on this topic? For if our minds are not open, discussion is pointless. Our voices then are used only to shout at our opponents.

But why should your mind be open if you know you’re right? Your mind used to be open, then you found out what the truth is, and now it’s closed—but in a good way. Your opponents just haven’t caught up with you yet; they haven’t seen the light. Right?

Of course, with any contentious issue you have two sides that are both “right”, and frustrated and angry with each other for not acknowledging what is obviously true. Increasingly the only arguments used are ad hominem attacks: the other guys are self-interested, that’s why they obstinately cling to an obviously false position.

If you think about it, there are only two ways to resolve differences of opinion: by agreement, or by violence. In the ideal case, all participants in a discussion are calm, open-minded, and reasonable, and they find consensus by engaging in rational discourse. For issues on which they cannot find consensus or agreement, they have recourse to a rational, rules-based decision-making system, such as voting. Every step you take away from the ideal case—from calmness to emotionalism, from open-mindedness to self-righteousness, from reasonableness to dogmatism—leads you closer to violence. And while violence might at least feel decisive, it isn’t, for the strong today are the weak tomorrow, and those beaten by force are not convinced; they’ll be back.

But where do calmness, open-mindedness, and reasonableness come from? Are they simply traits that some people are born with? Is it merely a matter of luck whether they’ll be found in any given group?

No. These qualities are fostered by a proper, that is by a liberal, education. They are fostered by sustained training in the three liberal arts of logic (how to think), grammar (how to speak and write), and rhetoric (how to argue). They are fostered above all by familiarization with the Great Ideas, which are all, every one of them, unresolved after thousands of years of debate. The liberally educated mind is one that realizes that certainty is elusive, and confined only to relatively trivial topics. The big topics, the big questions, have no certain answer, and honest people of good will can and do and always will disagree on them. But if those people are liberally educated, they will discuss them calmly, reasonably, and maybe even with a sense of humor.

Our society is moving not closer to this ideal, but farther away. That means, inevitably, we are heading for an era of increasing violence. Can it be turned around? Of course! It just takes enough of us wanting to—and knowing how. I for one am working on it, from my own little corner.

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