Home » Rigor and RelevanceSpring 2010

Dangerous Discourse

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You’re wrong. You’re stupid. And your mother dresses you funny.

In his new book, Democracy and Moral Conflict, Robert Talisse, associate professor of philosophy and political science, argues that our nation’s current polarized state is actually a threat to democracy. The book examines the political debate in America today and the lack of civility that sides show to one another.

“If there’s a danger to democracy, it’s the attitude that there’s no reasonable opposition to the view that someone happens to favor,” Talisse says. “If that’s true, democracy has got much larger problems than having made the wrong decisions about wars and energy policy and all that.”

Hot topics such as abortion, gay marriage, gun control and health care reform elicit extreme opinions on either side. One trend that Talisse finds disturbing is the media’s increasingly partisan voice when discussing these issues.

On the conservative side of the spectrum, he cites slogans such as “fair and balanced” used by right-leaning media to describe its reporting—despite reporting that may not be either. On the liberal side, he mentions filmmaker Michael Moore and Moore’s penchant for inflammatory theories that skewer the right.

It’s not just the media. Increasingly, political debates don’t serve as an exchange of reasons and arguments, but as an opportunity for trading insults. Talisse says in his book that they are sophistical contests in which each participant tries to prove the most effective at making his opponent look silly.

That should be of deep concern to all, he says. “The philosophical point is worth punctuating from the very start: If we lose our capacity to argue with each other, especially across deep moral divisions, we will lose our democracy,” he says.

The issues that divide our country are complicated, without black and white definition. That’s one reason Talisse believes civil, spirited debate—even when voices are raised—is essential to our coming together.

“A civil argument is not always calm,” he says. “But when an argument is civil, it’s because it’s aimed at assessing and addressing reasons and arguments and evidence, rather than assassinating people’s characters or trying to shout them down or cast them as unintelligent or not properly rational.”

photo credit: John Russell

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