Monday, January 10, 2011

The Death of Debate

Much has been written about the killings in Arizona, much of it centered on the overheated political climate in this country and the effect of so much vitriol on minds that are already unhinged. Convince a nutcake that a politician is guilty of treason, add a chorus of encouragement on the Internet, and throw in ready access to guns (even for the nutcakes), and you have a recipe for disaster.

All that is true enough, but there is another element worth mentioning: the death of rational debate.

People shoot their perceived adversaries because they don’t know how to debate them. It calls to mind the frustration of Billy Bigelow in Carousel, when asked by the heavenly star-keeper why he hit his wife. “We’d argue about something,” says Billy, “and she’d be right. So I hit her.”

A young man in Arizona thought of Gabrielle Giffords as an enemy. Maybe it was her stand on immigration, maybe health care, but he wasn’t capable of organizing his arguments into a rational discourse in that Tucson parking lot. So he shot her.

Rational discourse is not the stuff of FaceBook pages or 40-character tweets. It demands logical argument and a command of language. As a civilization, we're losing that, for a variety of reasons, including the coarsening of language. In so-called action movies, the heroes shoot four-letter words as fast as they shoot bullets. The same four-letter words, because they don’t know any other adjectives. Sad.

In my high-school days, debating was a big deal, and my best friend was the President of the Debating Society. We called him our golden-voiced orator, and not just because of the way he spoke. It was what he said for or against the proposition. He didn’t have to use four-letter words, because he had a rich vocabulary.

And he didn’t have to shoot people he disagreed with. He could mow them down with words.