Public Discourse

19 Mar

Two-people-talking-logo

Today’s episode of Ira Glass’ “This American Life” contained two fabulous acts.

The first is a very good piece. I highly recommend that you listen. It’s a rescue story full of second thoughts and bizarre coincidences.

And the second act is even better. It’s about public discourse and why it’s important. In the story, professors at a liberal arts college must make public arguments about why their disciplines are preferable to others, and most worthwhile to have with you if you get stuck on a life raft. These public presentations have been going on for years, and it’s become a contest. The student audience votes for the winner. And at every contest, there’s a naysayer — one speaker who argues that the audience vote for no one.

Every year, one of the professors has won. And every year, much like our political races, the players become more performance than substance, more attention-getting than true to themselves. They use stunts, props, comedy, sexual innuendo and any number of distractions and off-point tactics to gain popularity and win the audience vote. Sound familiar?

In the episode, this year the naysayer wins — for the first time — because he encourages the students to vote for no one. None of the performers get the vote.

A man at the gas station yesterday told me he liked my American flag bumper sticker. Besides just being a flag, it says, “THINK,” across the top of the flag. To me, this bumper sticker is the epitome of being American. It’s why we are all here in the first place. Freedom of speech, religion, press. The ability to make up our own minds and voice our thoughts. A chance to vote and be active participants in a democracy.

Empty rhetoric has become so important in American life. It’s not a good thing. Most of what we hear from our leaders is crap. Most of what the people around us say about public policy — our coworkers, friends and family, and even ourselves — is not based on a lot of thought process. It resonates from pure opinion — usually someone else’s — loudly spewed opinion that we heard on whatever talk radio or supposedly news program. We’re good at mouthing back someone else’s words. Where are ours?

It is overly simplified and sound bite-ish. It’s oratorical, it’s designed — and maybe scientifically tested through polling — to leave an impression, a very specific impression. There’s very little substance behind it. In a word, it’s fake and it’s manipulative. It’s stupid.

What would happen if we only voted for those candidates who actually make cogent and substantive arguments? Not just the ones who convince us through persuasion and emotion. The ones who really say something. Ignore the political parties and just vote for the people who are thinking.

Beyond our failure to create an environment where candidates actually prove a point, we are reticent to get into conversations with one another about politics and policy matters. There’s no discourse in our discourse. It’s one-way. A friend was recently lamenting about this on Facebook.

Why won’t we have conversations with friends, family co-workers, about things that are controversial, about topics that are difficult?

We don’t want to offend. We don’t want to disagree with people that we have daily relationships with. We don’t want to make our lives more difficult.

I think that another reason for this fear is that we don’t know much about what we say. We don’t know enough, and we need to know more. And we need to be less afraid. And we need to have less of a need to be entertained and more of a need to know.

We are Americans, living in a country where our ancestors came here because this was supposed to be a place where you can think and speak your mind. Where you can engage in public discourse that has meaning and impact. Will you? Will I?

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