Thoughts On Public Discourse: Initial Thoughts and Nihilism

It’s no great secret that Western civilization is divided on moral, religious, and ideological grounds. This is not a new development. But one of the greatest hopes of our history is that these disagreements would be resolvable through peaceful means: through open debate, free speech, and democratic process. I want to spend at least a few posts considering what kind of concepts have to be agreed upon by all sides if this possibility is to be feasible.

Before I do that, however, I want to spend this post considering the alternative. If peaceful resolution by the means suggested above is impossible, this means one of two things:

(1) Our civilization is headed for a civil war, if the factions within us cannot agree to disagree in some way, and simply allow the others to live as they wish even if we think what they are doing is evil.
(2) Our public dialogue must descend into true sophistry. I think, in truth, we are already in this position. The principles upon which our society argues hang in mid-air: we speak of human rights, but long ago abandoned any underlying theological and philosophical concepts that could make the language of rights intrinsic to human nature meaningful. Now, the language of rights serves as a mask for a pragmatic nihilism which essentially seeks to use rhetoric to manipulate the state into serving one faction’s purposes against the others. This rhetoric is rhetoric in the worst sense: language which has given up the possibility of persuading others through reason, and instead appeals directly to the emotions to override the possibility of disagreement from the outset. If this is the future for us, then all that can be done to resolve this disagreement is just to try to make one’s rhetoric better than one’s opponents. The hopeful part of this situation is that, after all, many people still believe in concepts like objective morality, objective truth, and the knowability of these things, even if they do not always admit it, and so rhetoric which serves the purpose of directing people back to reason can actually succeed. The fearful part of this situation is that it might not succeed, or at least not in the near future, and our civil discourse will continue to degrade. Of course, there is a more fundamental way to change this situation: convince people to give up pragmatic nihilism and return to at least a modern, if not premodern, belief in the objectivity and knowabiltiy of truth and goodness.