Sunday, March 11, 2012

Furor in Discourse

I frequent a philosophy forum, and there among other things I sometimes follow the advice of Wallace Stevens and, apparently, infuriate philosophers rather than follow them.  In one case, I was accused in response of being a fraud and was the target of a profanity-laced tirade.  I don't think I was being exceedingly provocative at the time, so I was somewhat surprised at this.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think this kind of anger is typical in our discourse, and becomes more and more prevalent.  We see it especially in our politics, which is now particularly invasive of our lives given the fact that we have the unpleasant task of electing a president just ahead of us.  It is combined with a hyperbolic rhetoric; for example, we are told we are engaged in a "battle for the soul of America." We have a politician seeking election proclaiming that the current incumbent, as well as his rival for nomination, seek to use the power of government to tell us how to act, while all the time he himself is diligently telling us how we should act.  We are warned that "class warfare" is imminent, and why not?  We are constantly at war with something, literally or figuratively.  We are perpetually at war, as some have noted.

Although it cannot plausibly be called "discourse" we see it also, of course, in talk radio and TV as practised by pundits.  One wonders in their case how much of it is mere pretense; being angry and obnoxious is something they may feel is required as a condition of their success.  Cable news channels are beginning to "sell" their coverage of the political campaign in a manner reminiscent of commercials for professional wrestling.

Cynical efforts to arouse emotion are not new, of course.  They are not peculiar to us or our times.  But we may be more inclined to respond to them because they are omnipresent, in a manner that even the media mavens of the recent past could not foresee.  There is no avoiding them, now, unless one is willing to stop looking or listening.

Perhaps we should, but it's no longer clear that is possible.  What might be more useful is a deliberate effort to see them for what they are, and treat them accordingly.

This will require some effort, but effort is good as it requires thought, and thought is good.  When listening to some politician or pundit, we should make it a rule to ask ourselves what he/she is trying to gain.  We should notice the strings that they seek to pull--we should assume that we are being manipulated in some fashion.  Perhaps we should read or take courses in rhetoric and logic, to learn to recognize the tricks played on us (intentionally or not, they're still tricks) and understand them.

Consider it a kind of self-defense, a precautionary empowerment, like carrying a concealed weapon (so popular, these days).  There are far more people intent on depriving us of our minds than our lives, and we can defend our minds without putting others in danger.

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