My spirituality book club is reading a Karen Armstrong book right now. When it was suggested, I thought, “There is no way in hell I can read one of her books in time for the next meeting.” If you have read any of her books you know what I mean. She is the Michener of nonfiction. I was surprised that Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is only 200 pages. I wonder what kind of feat it was for Armstrong to control herself like this.
I am well into the book now. This morning I read a chapter on communicating: “How Should We Speak to One Another?” It is very pertinent in today’s world in general but especially to our current election process.
She started out talking about the tradition of debate inherited from the ancient Greeks. “In the democratic assemblies of Athens, citizens learned to debate competitively, to marshal arguments logically and effectively, and to argue their case against one another in order to win…The object was to defeat one’s opponent: nobody was expected to change his mind, be converted to the other side, or enter empathetically into the rival viewpoint.”
Socrates didn’t really like this form of dialogue. “In true dialogue,” he said, “participants must answer in a manner more gentle and more proper to discussion.” For him, Armstrong says, “dialogue was a spiritual exercise designed to produce psychological change in participants, and because its purpose was that each person should understand the depth of his ignorance, there was no way that anybody would win”
What is passed off as political discourse today is as far from Socrates’ ideal as Pluto is from the sun. Armstrong writes, “We do not engage in many dialogues like this today. The debates in our parliamentary institutions, the media, academia, and the law courts are essentially competitive. It is not enough to seek the truth; we also want to defeat, even humiliate our opponents. The malice and bullying tactics decried by Socrates are embraced with enthusiasm as part of the fun.” She goes on to say, “A great deal of this type of discourse is a display of ego…Admitting that your opponents may have a valid point seems unthinkable. The last thing anybody intends is a change of mind.” In a debate to win an election, I’d have to say that the intent is to change minds, at least long enough to last until election day.
When the debate process began, first between Republican candidates and then Democrat, there was a strange conciliatory attitude among the debaters, a willingness to concede to the rightness of an opponent’s view on some matter. At least there was respect for a person even within disagreement. But that didn’t last long. I suppose part of the problem is that if you are really honest about the things you and the other candidates are in agreement about, people don’t know who to vote for. In time, the differences have to come to the surface. This is normal to the process, I think.
But what is happening right now is not about discourse or even about good debate. Lies are being spewed, name calling, inferences that put an opponent in a bad light, statements taken out of context, and personal attacks concerning behaviors that have nothing to do with qualifications to serve. “No attacking family members” was an agreed upon rule as recently as in the last national election, a rule now being broken right and left.
We will get through this. I believe in the pendulum theory, though I know that people get hurt as the pendulum swings. I am disturbed by the bigger picture: the endorsing of racist attitudes and behaviors, the use of abusive rhetoric, the acceptance of throwing out lies and distortions as though they were facts, and the indifference to those who are hurt by our thoughtless blubbering. I think about children listening to words and tones even if they don’t understand their meaning. We are giving them permission to behave in ways we will punish them for later.