Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Simple Truth Thesis

Our friend Bob Talisse has a post up over at This Side of the Pond, Cambridge University Press' blog. He's got a new book out (nice job Bob, and Cambridge...very nice) called Democracy and Moral Conflict and the post sets a nice foundation for his book's argument.

In the post, he argues that our contemporary political discourse suffers under the "Simple Truth Thesis,"

"the claim that Big Questions always admit of a simple, obvious, and easily-stated solution. The Simple Truth Thesis encourages us to hold that a given truth is so simple and so obvious that only the ignorant, wicked, or benighted could possibly deny it. As our popular political commentary accepts the Simple Truth Thesis, there is a great deal of inflammatory rhetoric and righteous indignation, but in fact very little public debate over the issues that matter most. Consequently, the Big Questions over which we are divided remain unexamined, and our reasons for adopting our different answers are never brought to bear in public discussion. And what passes for public debate is no debate at all. No surprise: debate or discussion concerning a Big Question can be worthwhile only when there is more than one reasonable position regarding the question; and this is precisely what the Simple Truth Thesis denies."
The effects of this oversimplification to our discourse are deeply problematic,
"All agree that, with respect to any Big Question, there is but one intelligent position, and all other positions are not merely wrong, but ignorant, stupid, na├»ve. A minute in the Public Affairs section of a bookstore confirms this: Conservatives should talk to liberals “only if they must” because liberalism is a “mental disorder.” Liberals dismiss their Conservative opponents, since they are “lying liars” who use their “noise machine” to promote irrationality."
There is no doubt that the diagnosis is correct and that the health of the body politic is at risk because of it. But what is the proper course of treatment?

To try to play by the rules of rational civil discourse when your interlocutor is not, is not the equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight, but bringing a rubber chicken to a gun fight. If, as philosopher of language H.P. Grice points out, conversation is a cooperative endeavor, what do you do when your conversational partner is a bully who will only play when the rules are in his favor, who refuses to play fair according to the rules of rational discourse? When their team line up is Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Glen Beck, and Matt Drudge, how do you reestablish order on the field of play?