What Ever Happened to Reason?

Civility can eventually lead to Chesterton, or at least Jurassic Park.

Now that the debates are over, I must admit I was less than impressed. Often the tone pitched, the attacks personal. Candidates didn’t discuss why the opposition’s policy proposals might not be in the best interest of middle-class Americans. Instead, they accused the opposition of not caring about middle-class Americans. Big difference. When in closing remarks one would drop the gloves long enough to refer to the other as a devoted husband and good family man worthy of admiration and respect, it simply rang hollow. After all, he just spent 90 minutes telling everyone what a miserable wretch of a human being he is.

Photo by: Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America, used under creative commons license.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at the second presidential debate—October 16th.

Civility in public discourse seems to be dead. When is the last time two candidates had a serious debate, a genuine exchange of ideas rather than accusations and zingers? One has to wonder if the debate format has been poisoned by what has become a sound-bite culture. Catholic Answers president Karl Keating may have hit the nail on the head when he recently posted on his Facebook page:

Next time around, in four years, I hope the current debate format is gone and replaced by something modeling the debates at the Oxford Union. A moderator would be present, but only to call the time and to keep the peace. The debaters would get blocks of time to present their affirmative arguments, their rebuttals, and their conclusions. There might or might not be time set aside for them to ask questions of one another.

I know, I know: wishful thinking. The present format “works” for the networks, and it “works” for lazy candidates–lazy in the sense of not having to do much more than prepare sound bites rather than sustained arguments.

And the format “works” for the American people, because, for all their vaunted educational attainments, they don’t have the capacity, most of them, to follow extended arguments, the kind that, for example, were in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Are we the problem? And the networks and candidates simply giving us what we want? In the Digital Age, the majority of us no longer have the attention span to absorb and analyze reasoned arguments. Candidates no longer champion ideas but rather simply represent ideologies. We make judgments based on 140 characters. Why bother to make a longer argument than that? Does it even matter if what’s said is true? Nah, as long as it sounds plausible at the time, people who subscribe to the worldview it represents will just go along with it. Yes, that’s a thinly veiled Candy Crowley reference.

This is one of the major challenges of the New Evangelization. Most people don’t have the attention span for fulfillment, so they opt for entertainment instead. It’s just easier and feels better. No wonder so many put politics before faith. A reasoned argument about why contraception violates fundamental human dignity just doesn’t resonate with someone whose lifestyle is no less dependent upon contraception than upon breathing air. When the search for Truth has all but been abandoned, what’s left? How do we break though?

We need witnesses. Joy (or at least civility) is still the most effective tool of evangelization, because it represents Truth in a non-threatening and completely disarming way. Plus, everybody wants it. When the frustrated ideologues start coming to us and asking us why we’re so damn happy, then we can start to make a reasoned argument.

Heck, maybe we can even quote Chesterton. “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”


Yeah, it’s totally Jurassic Park 101. You know how the dinosaurs eventually ate the scientists who created them? Right before that, the scientists were probably thinking, “Dude, this was a bad idea.”

The conversation goes on from there.


  1. says

    I haven’t watched presidential debates since the first one I could vote in. For years I felt like I was shirking my duty, so this year I made a promise to watch. But it took all of two minutes to identify why I gave up on the debates in the first place. It’s exactly what you’re saying. If ever there was going to be a venue for reasoned discussion of the issues, this ought to be it. And yet the entire time is wasted on zingers and sound bites. Someone asks a question, and the candidates ignore it in favor of repeating the same things they say everywhere else. Waste of time, IMO.

    • says

      Hi Kathleen, good to hear from you! I think Karl Keating’s comments about the format are right on point here. They do these goofy “town hall” debates for some reason, which are really just opportunities to regurgitate talking points to someone who effectively represents a special interest group and make promises that will likely not be kept. I seem to remember a time when the format was similar to what Karl suggests, and the debates were worthwhile. Or, maybe it was all just a dream. ;-)

  2. says

    Beautiful, Joel, just beautiful!

    I am going to share part of this with my class, tomorrow.
    I teach a class of mostly college juniors and seniors that is designed to develop their rhetorical thinking, writing and presenting skills. In this class, they learn about the basis of ‘arguments’ (not arguing) – and are supposed to analyze arguments – the claims, evidence, and action. For extra credit, they watched the debates and chose one question to analyze each candidate’s response and argument.

    Many have complained about the level of thought required in the class. Those who plan to be part of social services/welfare organizations tell me about how they are “just not into politics” and assignments that require reading an opinion piece are “really hard because I just don’t think about that.”

    My response: I know. You are 21 years old. Thus far, you haven’t been required to exercise your mind like this. But you are entering a world and workforce very dependent on policies and politics. You must be able to analyze arguments, to find reasons for/against issues.

    I think your piece will really speak to them; it did to me, anyway. It was very encouraging. And, you’re right about seeking entertainment and not fulfillment. How will people realize their hunger for righteousness and truth, if they just keep satiating themselves with garbage?

  3. says

    Hi Jessica, good to hear from you! Indeed, we suffer from a lack of critical thinking. I used to see the very same thing as a graduate teaching assistant. I think your response to them is right on the money.

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