Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mincing Words With Thom Hartmann

Oh yes, the New Mexico winter has, at least for a few days, forgotten to be cold and windy.  MeanMesa simply could not ignore such an opportunity to spend a couple of warm, sunny days working on the gardens.  However, while joyously consumed with the old shovel, a certain thought seemed to return too often.

One afternoon a day or so ago, the volume on the old AM radio was put a little higher so Thom's voice (The Thom Hartmann Show, 1350 AM KABQ, Albuquerque, 10 AM to 1 PM, weekdays) was loud enough to reach the "shoveling and weeding site" just outside the back door.

Thom was dutifully following the "more civil discourse" talking point which had been assigned to all public voices in the country after the Tucson incident.   However, his particular "discourse" had tastefully migrated to a discussion of the idea of debate.  Hartmann was noting the benefit of the debate format of discourse as an alternative to the prevailing form of "more or less unchallenged," freely roaming comments.

Thom made the very reasonable point that these  "solo" speech making opportunities seemed to invite such speakers to a suspiciously empty form of public communication.  In fact, when such an opportunity is coupled with a speaker already suffering from the problems accompanying an over zealous appetite for incendiary rhetoric, these unchallenged comments seem to beg for dangerously irresponsible content.

"Irresponsible content?" Yes, content with the single purpose of further inflaming under-informed listeners with even more false dichotomies, impossible choices and additional layers of carefully manipulated fear concerning any particular "burning question of the day" which might offer even the slightest political advantage.

Ho hum.  All of this, left carelessly to stand on its own merit, would amount to little more than a tiny bit of additional "fodder for the fires" in the so-far vacuous frenzy toward the imaginary goal of "more civil discourse."  Further, if that point represented the entire focus of the intent for this posting, MeanMesa would have, at this point, quietly joined a thousand other blogs and "news" networks in the national headlong rush toward the empty promise of "better times."

So, to rehabilitate MeanMesa's commentary here, it becomes necessary to examine a certain idea among Thom's discussion a little more closely.

As he spoke about the disadvantages of "public discourse" not being conducted in  the form of debates, his predictable lament concerned the habit of such speakers to present "information" which was not, well, actually information at all, and instead, was simply the very questionable hybrid brew of a sanguine lust for influence, incendiary imaginings and the concerted efforts of a room full of psychologists at a "talking point factory" (American Enterprise Institute, et al.) somewhere.

It was just at this very point that Mr. Hartmann introduced the idea which really is the exact focus of this posting, that is, the very troubling idea which seemed to uncontrollably enter and re-enter MeanMesa's thoughts in such an unsettling way.

Thom Hartmann bemoaned the fact that this present form of unchallenged discourse lacked the validating authority of a debate moderator who might insist that the exploitive "civil" or "challenged" discourse presented in such a debate be less arbitrary and more carefully founded on fact.

Hmmm.  Although this doesn't, at first blush, seem to be anything which might reasonably warrant MeanMesa's discomfort, when considered more closely, we will, perhaps, have a different view.  And, to explain all the "moving parts" of the "different view," we may as well dissect that "different view" by the numbers.

  (image source)

1.  The nature of a debate is far more similar to lifting "free weights" than the more controllable efforts one might exert while using a weight lifting machine.  Part of the debate process which lends credibility to its outcome and product is the test of uncertainty encountered by its participants.

This implies that when a debate opponent offers a faulty or refutable position on something, he faces the serious liability of being exposed by his counter.  That expectation, presumably, represents the discipline of the process.  The argument of the debate must be "debated" with the support of facts which cannot be easily -- and often dramatically -- refuted by "better" or more credible contradictory evidence.

When amateurs debate, this precise development frequently decides who will win the contest.  When more experienced opponents debate, this is not so frequently the case.  These "pros" will avoid making such a risky, unsupportable gambit and probably be much more involved with issues of the argument itself while wasting time contesting the quality or source of "found fact."  A debate is not a contest of fact.  A debate is a contest between alternate conclusions derived from such fact where both participants essentially agree on what the facts actually are but, perhaps, not what the facts might mean or imply.

The "reason" that facts do not suffer in a legitimate debate is not because of the moderator, it is because those debating know that their well prepared opponent will exploit such a poorly considered risk and win the debate.

2.  If the debate moderator were "authorized" to halt the discourse when questionable -- or even outrageously false -- facts were presented, the persuasive goal of the debate would become mixed with the reputation of the moderator.  Make no mistake.  The goal of the debate and its participants is to persuade an audience that they are right and that their opponent is wrong.

"allowed" or "hosted" by a greater authority than the opinions of the audience which result form listening to it.

The very fact that one is prepared to listen to a debate means that one is prepared to take the risk that his own thoughts might be overwhelmed by the persuasive power of the opponents.  He might be persuaded.  The full range of possibilities includes the chance that he will be persuaded to accept a conclusion which contradicts his previous position.  The risk comes from the equal possibility that this new conclusion will not be a good one for the listener's interests.

Depending on an empowered moderator to prevent or mitigate such a risk suggests that the listener refuses the responsibility of making such a mistake on his own.  The conclusion in the mind of the listener as he departs the debate is his own responsibility, not the moderator's.  MeanMesa considers such an insistence on "the protection by an empowered moderator" from incorrect conclusions to be little more than another form of adolescent co-dependence.

Now, finally, perhaps we have uncovered the first material revelations about this alarming lack of "civil discourse" in our politics.  All the crazy outrages emerge not solely from the failed nature of those who utter them, but also from the risk averse nature of those who will hear them.  It seems that the audiences of the "non-debate" form of grotesque discourse have no appetite for taking the risk for being responsible for the conclusions they draw.

After seeing the phenomenon in this light, false dichotomies become extremely convenient.  When there are but two possibilities presented as the full spectrum of alternatives, the nicely controlled "weight lifting machine" approach to forming one's personal thoughts requires far less effort -- and precipitates far less uncertainty -- than a sincere, risk-saturated, more mature approach where such uncertainties are met with a breathtaking, risky confidence rather than a desperate search for refuge.

There is no means to remove risk and uncertainty from the task of self-government.  There is no existential opportunity to enjoy a numbing certainty that decisions can be made in a field absent any possible error or manipulation.  The fabric of democracy is not woven with such indulgences.

Debate and statesmanship are only effective when the audience of either has matured to the point when, once again, that audience is prepared to accept the risk of being exploited or persuaded, that is, when that audience is prepared to trust its own judgement and conclusions.   

That is the fabric of democracy.

No comments:

Post a Comment