“O simple ones, learn prudence;
O fools, learn sense.”
It’s election year again. Every time the political debates come round, I am reminded of the section in Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death where he described what political discourse looked like a hundred and fifty years ago.
Postman cites the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates as an example of how much things have changed. In 1858 a day’s debate could last seven hours and was packed with richly developed intellectual argumentation. By contrast, today’s politicians typically offer us a succession of quick, disconnected points which attempt to convey a general impression of competence and trustworthiness while lacking in the rigors of analytical depth and philosophical sophistication.
Elvin T. Lim, political scientist from Wesleyan University, has chronicled the gradual dumbing-down of American political discourse in his 2008 publication The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush. Professor Lim looks specifically at presidential speeches, yet his observations have relevance across the spectrum of our nation’s political discussions.
Lim points out that the speeches given by presidents are increasingly filled with vacuous statements that do not invite rational disputation. Speeches are designed to maximize applause lines, stroke the emotions and appeal to our intuitions, while being lean on substantive content. As such, presidential rhetoric completely bypasses the type of higher order thought necessary for proper analysis.
Lim has amassed an impressive array of evidence to chronicle the steady dumbing-down of Presidential rhetoric. He calls this dumbing-down process “anti-intellectualism”, and with good reason. He contrasts it with the classical understanding of rhetoric. For the ancients, good rhetoric included logos (the weighing and judging of reasons for a particular course of action), ethos (the credibility of the speaker) and pathos (emotional appeal). “Presidential rhetoric today” Lim writes, “is short on logos, disingenuous on ethos, and long on pathos.”
HT: Robin Phillips