There is something vapid and vacuous about much of modern discourse. Stopping for an Espresso today, I was obliged to listen in on the animated banter of two ladies, spurred by caffeine and the salaciousness of gossip to be shared, to emote with the abandon of an Athenian orator. Though alas, they did so with jarring diction, vocabulary and syntax.
One of the primary verbal sins of the age was flicked hither and thither like a wet towel — the curious use of the word “like” as a recurring hyphen, qualifier and punctuation mark. “I was like you know saying to this guy, I’m not like…like that kind of girl; like man don’t like treat me like I’m some kind of idiot.” That we escaped this sentence with but one gratuitous dollop of “you know” as additional muesli for the mix, was a true blessing.
The diminution of thought by way of the devolution of language impoverishes discourse far and wide, and not just on cafe stools amongst those possibly taking a break from coherence. I heard on a morning show someone ranting that they differed from President Obama because he did not believe in American exceptionalism, and the ranter did. The host of the show also piped in with an almost self-evident reaffirmation of his faith in American exceptionalism.
But what does American “exceptionalism” mean? It could mean that the United States has been blessed with tremendous advantages and we are obliged to make the best use of them. If so, bravo! It could mean acknowledging the evident leadership the United States has provided post World War Two to the world. Wonderful! But if it means that America has to be better than others in some zero sum (I win you lose) way, it gets murkier. And if the belief is that a great country at times guilty of great blinkers, that has undermined its middle class and emasculated its education system, has been on military and consumer binges it cannot now easily afford, with a democracy “for sale” to the highest bidder, must not be challenged to recover its greatness, then it’s imbecilic. If the act of holding ourselves accountable to our ideals and potential is unpatriotic heresy, we’re done for.
On a recurring rampage, atheism propagandist Christopher Hitchens, who seems to be perennially jarred and emotionally inflamed by an allegedly non-existent Deity, nevertheless demonstrates the power of polemical fireworks as he mobilizes and rouses the legions of those supposedly liberated from the yoke of medieval superstitions. Taking a diametrically different view, mathematician and scientific philosopher David Berlinksi derides what he calls the “scientific pretensions” of atheism. Berlinksi is as eminently readable in his sardonic and satirical rapier thrusts against the dogmatism of fundamentalist atheists as Hitchens is compelling in his incendiary outrage at the gullibility of religious rubes. People flock to these books, not because they point out anything profoundly new (these debates have been with us for quite some time), but for the pleasure of enjoying the performance.
Plato warned about the dangers of rhetoric. He warned of reason being seduced and swindled by linguistic sleight-of-hand and verbal embroidery. But Robert Pirsig, gave modern voice to a co-equal disquiet about the divorce between the “search for truth” and the “search for beauty”. The rhetorical triumvirate of ethos (the credibility and standing of the communicator), pathos (appeal to common emotions and intuitions) and logos (logical reasoning) is something we would do well to recover…and to teach again.
Emotions swirl within us. Thoughts cascade in our minds. If they remain inarticulate, or are rendered specious or trivial through a paucity of language or an inability to convey what we intend or to marshal the nuances of what we think and/or feel, we (and our relationships with us) become far less than what they might be.
We don’t need the flatulent zeal of charismatics, but we don’t need the dribbling confusion that so often poses for communication in modern life either. Perhaps a world of increasing complexity and challenge needs us as citizens and contributors to show up mentally, emotionally and linguistically. We need to show up to listen, to evaluate, to challenge, to engage, to learn, to generate, to design, and to hold the feet of our political leaders to the fire of accountability. We can’t be misled by drivel, and we must demand more than the empty drumbeat of slogans or the gewgaws of simplistic jargon.
Plato’s teacher and mentor, Socrates told us that the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined leader is not worth having. And all of us must examine, really examine, with all the armaments of education and with the widest possible consideration of alternatives, our countries, our leaders, our possibilities, and our own lives and then take an articulate, passionate and persuasive stand for our beliefs, our convictions and our aspirations. Now that’s a worthy dialogue to envisage!
Oliver Wendell Holmes once opined that truth is the shifting residue from a competition of ideas. If not “truth”, then perhaps at least human progress.But ideas can only meaningfully compete when they can be fully expressed and genuinely understood.
Let’s take a stand for such understanding.