On Public Discourse & Debate

I’ve been rereading Robert Roberts and W. Jay Wood’s Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (New York: Oxford, 2007) in preparation for some academic speaking engagements that I have over the next few months. The book examines, as the title suggests, how one must be intellectually virtuous. A few short pages of the text are worthwhile for all people who engage in any sort of public discourse (whether in church small groups, in the academic classroom, or participate in online forums and posts).

Drawing influence from economist Glenn Loury and author George Orwell, Roberts and Wood briefly examine the psychological and social barriers that interfere with clear communication. Make no mistake, a clear and gentle communication is itself a virtue. As rightly pointed out, both the philosopher Aristotle and Jesus Christ speak highly of gentleness and meekness in discourse.

But communication is more than mere utterance of truths. “People who communicate too clearly or in the wrong ‘language’, or present unwelcome facts, are subject to social sanctions like anger, criticism, condemnation, and being labeled an ‘outsider'” (Roberts & Wood, 135). People need virtues of communication.

Citing Orwell, it is insincerity that is the great enemy of clear language. Thus, there is an attitude (whether intentional or unintentional) that seeps into our conversation. The communication of what one thinks is true is only a portion of what is communicated. “The way we say things, and what we say, the kind of vocabulary that we use, and the kinds of facts we emphasize, often tell something about us the speakers” (Roberts & Wood, 135-36). Thus what a listener (or reader) perceives is not just the words heard or read, but also subtle insinuations and direct tones.

But speaking too harshly or directly is only one side of a twofold problem. Following Loury, there exists a discussion equilibrium between abruptness and cowardice. When one wants accepted into a community, or is leery about questions possibly raised, then truth and knowledge are sacrificed. However, the polarity is problematic as well. Here, the speaker is too loose with his or her tongue thereby ostracizing listeners in some manner. We know these people. They tend to the the novice political and social commentators who masquerade as if their party or position of choice has total, objective truth and that anyone who disagrees is labeled ignorant or stupid. When in discussion one ought neither succumb to timidness due to fear of ostracize nor be crass, cynical, or ignorant to sensitivity.

Following Jesus who says that people should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16), Roberts & Wood offer certain traits that exhibit Jesus’ command and thus avoid both problems of Loury’s equilibrium. I will use Roberts and Wood’s example of truthfulness. Truth should not simply be told, but the goal is to make it clearly known. “This purity of heart with respect to truth is opposed to insincerity…(truthfulness) is also a skill. It takes practice and finesse and empathy with others’ point of view to get the truth across in such a way as to evoke genuine understanding on the part of one’s receivers…” (Roberts & Wood, 137).

It seems like we as a culture are far from being intellectually virtuous in public discourse. I’ve heard many accusations about the New Atheist movement being ignorant and mean-spirited. Yet, Christians seem to also be mean-spirited in return. Part of the meekness that Christ speaks about includes forgiveness which “is a disposition to look past offenses” (Roberts & Wood, 139). I’ve been the recipient of many direct and indirect (which at times are far more hurtful) derogatory language because I vote for a certain political party. Even more lamentable is that the attack frequently comes from other Christians. Now make no mistake, I myself have played into the treacherous game of political attacks. I am guilty as well. When these battles occur, each individual party tends to point fingers at the other, often accusing the other of not understanding the “truth.” But perhaps such attacks come with too much haste and a lack of conviction. Perhaps fault lies not only with the recipient, but also with the communicator.

Fellow speakers, let us all learn quickly how to be more virtuous in our communication. Keep the discourse open. Leave not one out of it due to harshness of tone, flippancy, unjust accusations, etc. Help those who cower in the corners, afraid to speak because of possible rhetorical attack. Consider the position of the other person, try to existentially step into the other person’s shoes. Slow down and listen to others and what they have to say. If you disagree, disagree with kindness and reason. As Immanuel Kant once said, “treat others as ends in themselves, never as means to an end.” Be tender, yet direct. Be meek, yet speak truth. Be willing to recognize that your position may not be completely indubitable, because we are all fallible.

Source: Robert C. Roberts & W. Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. New York: Oxford. 2007.

2 thoughts on “On Public Discourse & Debate

  1. Adam Birch says:

    I love this post. I have been striving to refine my style of discourse over the last year. I have tended to be rough around the edges but as I began to prize honest, open, constructive conversation over winning, I have found it has led me to many more interesting, productive conversations.

  2. Sreejith says:

    It is interested to see that how some of the intellectual virtues are entangled with some of the moral virtues. Provided that inclusion and considerations of diverse perspectives are epistemically important the kind of virtues that are mentioned above becomes significant due to epistemic considerations. It seems that, It becomes morally significant on grounds that are independent fo the epistemic considerations. I think here it is important to understand that how the inclusion of and considerations of diverse perspectives are epistemically important. Does the inclusion of various view points takes us nearer to truth? Or is it that the inclusion of various view points in the discussion/debate has some intrinsic epistemic value? Or is it merely a moral value? How does one go about if the diverse view points that one is talking about are ‘incommensurable’ in some sense? In discussions and debates, are we getting more and more corrected or are we getting ‘converted’ to other’s positions/view points there by not being necessarily being corrected? Are we often conflating moral consideretations and epistemic considerations when we are taling about the inclusion of various view points?

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