The Anti-Socratic War
Our habits of talk can affect how well we discern the significance of issues and conflicts between different perspectives. George Steiner expressed a comment on how the media communicates that is relevant. Regarding how modern journalistic media is unable to attenuate its emphasis in terms of greater and lesser significance he wrote,
"The journalistic vision sharpens to the point of maximum impact every event, every individual and social configuration; but the honing is uniform. Political enormity and the circus, the leaps of science and those of the athlete, apocalypse and indigestion, are given the same edge. Paradoxically, this monotone of graphic urgency anaesthetizes." (p. 29)
Discerning the true intensity and significance of issues portrayed in the media is a troubling affair. The consistent journalistic drone of heightened conflict at the drop of the slightest difference of opinion dulls our sensibility. This significance dulling drone is a manifestation of the characteristics of the anti-Socratic philosophy of persuasion. It is the pitch of the whine you hear when the quest to dominate the world with talk becomes self-aware of its own impotence. When the conflicted emotionality of this whining is always ringing in our ears during the presentation of important issues, it teaches us the worst in human communication. Closed minded attempts to persuade at any cost, horrendous discourtesy, mendacious distractions, and a shallow answerability that has more to do with the melodramatic affect of cheap polemics than with responsible answerability, all create an image of discourse that is closer to resembling quarreling circus animals than to giving us an example of intelligent human beings participating in reasoned conversation.
The only time that a healthier exchange of information is ever put forth between anti-Socratic talking heads is when they perceive themselves to be working on the same side. The closer their perspectives, the better the exchange of information. The more their perspectives differ, the more the actual exchange of ideas is shut down and replaced with polemic distractions. Unfortunately, it is only to the extent that perspectives differ that the exchange of ideas is most useful. Until people learn to differ in good conscience and learn to bring their differences together in service to solving problems and creating knowledge, the greatest capabilities of public discourse to support our need to live and work together in peace remain laid to waste.
What Steiner said of journalistic media in 1989 is even more true of U.S. mainstream video media today. In the anti-Socratic mode of communication, every difference is spun up to a conflict of the highest drama. Every actual conflict is magnified to its most dire impact. Every variance of position is over interpreted with regard to the implications for conflicted drama. The first casualty in this are the actual issues about which we are supposed to be talking. Beyond the melodrama, there is also a shift from useful primary discussion and analysis of the full complexity of issues to a very concise framing of all issues. This framing is constructed as the secondary talk about a small set of pre-selected talking points that reduces the intelligence and usefulness of public talk to its lowest possible resolution. The actual amount of useful data that is discussed cannot possibly fill the modern twenty-four hour, seven day a week schedule of most mainstream media outlets. So the remainder is filled in either with trivia, other entertainment related programming, or with incoherent and melodramatic commentary that is merely secondary and tertiary discourse focused on regurgitating preselected talking points. This kind of selectivity combined with the deliberate manufacture of drama at every opportunity reduces much of modern media's talk on the issues to the sorry image of seemingly disturbed people babbling on about each other's talk in personally conflicted ways while the full depth of issues are left untouched by any thoughtful attention.
The effect on the public with regard to their capacity to be responsibly answerable to the issues of the day is devastating. The anti-Socratic practice of talk teaches us to be easily offended, to ignore real data in favor of sideshow distractions, to be more attentive to the drama of emotions than the ideas of our reason, to accept incomplete information as the basis for formulating perspectives, and to demonize people who have different ideas. Most often in public discourse, there is no sense of people with different ideas working together as a team. The natural peacemaking character of the Socratic method of conversation is completely absent. In its place is the hysteria of the desperation to subsume the world to inadequate talk. The distracted quarreling that passes for useful discourse is a national crises in the U.S..
The respect that John Stewart has gained as a commentator on the popular Daily Show demonstrates the scope and seriousness of the issue. That John Stewart can consistently remain closer to an openness and hospitality that is kindred to the spirit of Socratic conversation while many of our politicians babble and rant like cranky babies reveals an odd fact. In the U.S. we often take our comedians seriously while laughing at our politicians. An important reason that John Stewart is effective in his discussions with guest on his show is simply that he offers his guests real courtesy and a welcoming hospitality. It really is that simple to increase the quality and intelligence of a conversation. Courtesy and hospitality between people in a conversation will automatically make it easier for them to communicate intelligently.
This is the smallest scope of peacemaking. When two individual people can discuss their differences in a courteous and productive manner. Peace thrives in the space that hospitality creates. This kind of peacemaking between individuals is fundamental to the peace of all the world. It is the foundation upon which all civilizations are built. It is the ruination of a civilization when this phenomenon breaks down. Like the particles that make up a star, it takes a great many small acts of peace between individuals to make up the peace of the world. It takes many billions of acts of peacemaking a day amongst all the people to have a truly peaceful world.
The situation in the U.S. is such that we must now turn away from the model given to us by the media for discussing issues and solving problems. The anti-Socratic model of talk is the most common form of U.S. public discourse and destroys peacemaking and useful productivity at its most fundamental level. I propose that a Socratic philosophy of conversation be the replacement that is implemented. The art of living an examined life and the art of creating new solutions and knowledge demands a new way forward.
What is true of the individual is also true of a society. As each human being must manifest hospitality to the strangers within her in order to empower her own journey of self-discovery, so each society must manifest hospitality between the members that live within that society. Your power to be courteously attentive to others in dialogue is directly influenced by your ability to be courteously attentive to your own being. Hospitality to the stranger in dialogue is a fruit of our hospitality to the strangers within us. We cannot be compassionate with others until we have compassion for ourselves. Our ability to be attentive to others is limited by our ability to be deeply attentive to the call of our own being. By drawing forth the same hospitality we offer to ourselfves, we can give it freely to others in dialogue. This will empower our ability to touch upon the common grounds and manifest the shared spaces we need as a species to create a future worth living. We need to teach and persuade people of the necessity of courteous and hospitable dialogue. We need to offer real hospitality to people who differ from us as we move forward in the quest to work together in the creation of knowledge and solutions. The exercise of this hospitality in creative dialogue will empower citizens to become the peacemakers of the world through the habits of their daily living. Improving the quality of how we speak to one another in daily life is an important first step towards making a better world. The Socratic method and philosophy of conversation is an ideal catalyst to cultivate our growth as we join together to envision a future worth living.
The key dynamic in the achievement of our highest goals was first mentioned on page 31 in the section, "The Socratic Method of Conversation as the Practice of Peace". I wrote, "Peacemaking is not the specialty of diplomats or only for those of exceptional gifts. Peacemaking is a vital function of each and every human being for each and every day of our lives... It is only when most citizens of the world are in the daily habit of working for peace within themselves that we have any chance at all of making lasting peace for the world". To put this idea in its most succinct structure of principle, we must consider that the achievement of our greatest goals will always involve significant repetition. In this case, the extraordinary repetition of small acts of peacemaking amidst a large population is the only workable pathway to world peace. To raise the question of our being in free and open dialogue is the foundation of all possible pathways to increase the depth of human authenticity and integrety as we shape the societies in which we live.
Part three examines the fundamentality of repetition and its relationship to variation, increasing complexity, meaning and the human quest to thrive. What is most fundamental to life will be shown to also be fundamental to the structure of the Socratic method of conversation.