Friday, December 17, 2010

Sayers' TLTOL (part 3)

Sayers calls into question the discernment and debating abilities of those educated in modern times:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?
Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?
Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use? Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has already defined them? Have you ever been faintly troubled by the amount of slipshod syntax going about? And, if so, are you troubled because it is inelegant or because it may lead to dangerous misunderstanding?
I shy away from conflict. Just a small Facebook quarrel via comments can ruin my day because it's all words with no conciliatory faces to show that no hard feelings are accompanying the disagreement. I don't waste time watching Presidential debates because they're mostly performing for cameras and trying to make the other person look stupid to the projected demographic makeup of the audience. Don't misunderstand me: debate is incredibly important to our republic. But I don't see it well done, so I try not to waste my time or emotions watching useless debate. Ad hominem attacks, incomplete facts, and utter failure to understand the other side's point of view characterize much of "public debate" these days (go ahead and throw in some corruption, too, of course, for Americans aren't magically immune to it). I wish we had an Abraham Lincoln who could write his own eloquent and thought-out speeches, but we don't. Inspiring demeanor or folksy down-to-earthness don't make an argument valid or convincing. Is the solution teaching Latin to kids? Of course not, but there's a lot more to the education that Sayers is proposing in this essay.

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