The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 27

The Art of the Anti-Socratic Talking Head

Mass communication in all its various media embraces a sacred mission to persuade as many people as possible. Persuading you to buy, persuading you to believe, persuading you to act, persuading you to speak in a particular way or to hold your tongue is the religion of the typical talking head. The liturgies of their faith are the rituals of flattery. Dressing up their position, putting on its best face, and working hard to be sure it appeals to the preexisting fancies of a targeted demographic is their sacred covenant. When the masses can be persuaded to stand behind a pretty lie, there are relatively few people in the modern world willing to put big money behind an important but ugly truth. In the cult of the anti-Socratic, it is more important to the talking head to flatter your existing framework of interpretation in order to persuade you to their side than it is to engage in real dialogue to seek the truth for the good of all. They would rather sweet talk your current understanding in order to obtain your easy agreement than try to lead a discussion that may force you to face difficult truths. For the typical talking head, all the world is subsumed to talk, specifically it is subsumed to the sweet talk that is the flattery of deceitful persuasion. This flattery always seeks to imitate the cherished preferences of its targeted demographic. It is antithetical to the art of the typical talking head to ever open herself up to the real presence of another human being or different perspective while engaged in conversations about their ideas.

Socrates compared (Gor. 465b) various false arts of "flattery" to various real art forms in order to illustrate how the verbal art of persuasion in the absence of a commitment to seek truth compares to conversations enacted in service to truth seeking. In one comparison he states:

SOCRATES: "Cosmetics is the one (an art of flattery) that wears...(the mask) of gymnastics (exercise)...(it is) a mischievous, deceptive, disgraceful and ill-bred thing, one that perpetuates deception by means of shaping and coloring, smoothing out and dressing up, so as to make people assume an alien beauty and neglect their own, which comes though gymnastics (exercise)."

This criticism is made in the context of people being persuaded to adopt artificial cosmetic manipulations when real health through proper exercise and diet are available. In such cases, the fake flattery overtakes the real thing. The anti-Socratic habits of the typical talking head are devoted to an art of flattery which forsakes truth whenever a lie will gain a win. The cheap, the easy, and the pretty lie hold more virtue for the anti-Socratic than less appealing and more hard working truths. The anti-Socratic talking head always works to make sure people are never held accountable for facing difficult truths when such truths have the potential to make the people think differently from the talking head's perspective. The lovelier image is more important than the less lovely substance. Flattering you into a subjective feeling of self-satisfaction is more important than the realities you need to face. The art of the typical anti-Socratic talking head is the art of shutting down conversation through deceitful flattery. It is the obtainment of quick and easy agreement. If failing that, there is no recourse the intelligent examination of ideas. The ability to work productively with people of differing perspectives is neither a virtue nor an ideal of the anti-Socratic talking head. Prolonged discussion in which a diversity of ideas are seriously considered is anathema to the anti-Socratic art of persuasion.

Since flattery cannot convince those outside of the targeted demographic, the anti-Socratic talking head then often resorts to disrespectfully railing against people with a vigor of extraordinary resentment, using any off topic smear no matter how mendacious. Any irrelevancy or distraction whatsoever is used as a tactic for damage control. What is the damage that is controlled? The anti-Socratic talking head never wants their demographic to think or behave beyond the parameters of their talk. The first thing they want to subsume to their talk is you. They do not want you thinking with openness to other ideas or facts unless it happens support their view. They certainly never want you to open yourself up with hospitality and courtesy to any real presence that challenges their position. It is when you try to live an examined life in which you open yourself up to the diversity of people and perspectives that any intelligent human being must consider in relationship to the important issues that challenge our living, it is then that you become the damage that must be controlled.

The academic study of the arts provides an illustration of a larger "dis-ease" of western civilization, which finds a vivid example in the daily life of the anti-Socratic talking head. The typical anti-Socratic talking head is most often merely talking about the talk of the talk of a whole world full of issues. There is no end of framing talk in terms of reference to other talk. What Steiner saw as a deadly weakness in the academic study of the arts is a daily principle of life for the anti-Socratic talking head. This is illustrated in an example with an imaginary talking head below:

TYPICAL TALKING HEAD: "The first party said this, but the second party said something else. However, you know that so and so said such and such about what those two parties said. But this blog said that so and so's idea is not so much, thus we have to consider the positions of the first two parties in a different light."

The structure of secondary and tertiary discourse that Steiner defines as failure of attentiveness in the academic study of arts is alive and well in the practice of the anti-Socratic talking head. This style of framing, which tends to move away from primary analysis and discussion, seeks to subsume the world to its derivative cheap talk. This is a common mode of operations in a lot of public discourse. The anti-Socratic talking head is another example of the dis-ease of western civilization that Steiner illustrates with the academic study of the arts in Real Presences.

Our productive participation in examining important issues is compromised when the framing of our discussion is exclusively given to us in terms of the talk of a select set of groups and individuals. The extraordinary impact of this simplifying framing and reduction process is clearly illustrated in the U.S. every time a U.S. citizen says with an air of contentment that they have received "both sides of the story" regarding some issue that affects a great many people. The belief in the U.S. that the full complexity of issues and perspectives can be framed in terms of such binary oppositions as the U.S. two party system, liberal vs. conservative, or theist vs. atheist, demonstrates the power of this selective framing. Talk that is most easily recognized in the preselected categories is disproportionately presented to us in the media as if those categories of perspective are the only options.

When the people allow the scope of their own thinking and talk to be framed in terms of what the preselected few are saying and the limited categories of talk that are the only presented options, this effectively excludes the unique contribution we all have to make in creating new understandings on the issues of the day. To the extent that the limiting of discussion to selected talking points and preapproved perspectives makes it impossible for people, who accept such conventions as normative to think outside of the box the media creates, the thought limiting results are similar to Orwell's "newspeak". This is more than just a metaphor. Here, the real ability to make undesirable thought impossible is not innate to the structure of language, but is a function of programmatic pre-empting.

It is in this style of framing, that we become subsumed to the secondary and tertiary talk of public discourse. The creation and implementation of solutions to the issues of our day require a host of other differences that cannot be reduced to preselected options. As good citizens, we all must contribute original and creative differences to the talk of our day in order for public discourse to be effective. Much like Steiner's advocacy for the primacy of personal experience in Real Presences, a Socratic philosophy of conversation wants to persuade us to explore our need to spend more time making an original and personal contribution to the public good that does not rely on secondary and tertiary talk. Personal involvement is key. If the people take no interest in personally participating with their own original contributions and efforts pertaining to the issues of our day, it does not matter what the media does. In the absence of robust civic participation by all citizens, who are able, we are already lost.