Friday, January 17, 2014

Don't Let the Lights Go Out

Our society is continuously engaged in pseudo-debates about a range of issues, from abortion to gun control to redefining marriage to the proper response to poverty and immigration concerns. I call them "pseudo-debates" because they quite often seem to be missing a constitutive component of a debate: thought. There's an awful lot of emoting, but not a whole lot of thinking. People deem it sufficient to decide a matter merely by the expression of their feelings about it. Rather than defining our terms, stating our principles, making our arguments, and considering objections (in the serenely reasonable style of the medieval Scholastic philosophers), we instead shout and scream and stamp and snivel and point fingers and tear our hair out and rend our garments and call each other hateful and fear-mongers and heartless and brainless and just about every other pejorative we can conjure up (in the typically passionate style of the modern philosophers, who began by defending reason and usually ended by denying its applicability or trustworthiness).

This is not only immoral in its lack of charity, it's unproductive. We don't get anywhere in our discussions with each other, and when one side does get enough momentum going on its side to win the tug-of-war, we meet a host of unintended consequences that may well have been foreseen had we thought our way through things, and in the end everybody falls down. It reminds me of a parable from G.K. Chesterton's book Heretics (1905):
Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.
Though the medieval method may be too arid for the tastes of some, there is no denying its precision and efficiency. If the goal of debate is to air the various perspectives and thoughts of all and come to a reasoned conclusion on the subject, then we must stop our public debates from turning into shouting matches and lynch mobs and witch-hunts, and return to the cathedral school and the university of the pre-modern period, with its disputatio and quodlibet debates. Let's hurry, before the lights go out!

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