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I don’t remember a time when people were particularly civil to each other whilst arguing in the public arena. Question Time in Australia is a shameful farce. The majority of its late night viewers are inebriated students watching ironically, possibly playing drinking games based on how often the politicians interrupt each other. (A very effective way to initiate young Australians into our binge drinking culture whilst simultaneously engendering that potent mix of apathy and indignation that makes this country so… but i digress.)

The arena of debate, desiccated and exaggerated through the hyper-media maelstrom of never ending news, microblogging, trolls and propagandist, has taken on a new shape; a shape reflective of it’s content. Decontextualized quotes and headlines vie for attention in a climate where 59% of shares are never read by the sharer, or the sharees. The arena is optimising for ‘shareability’. It feeds back on itself in a geometrically compounding bacchanalian orgy of vicious and vacuous tripe, preying on affirmation bias to bolster and reinforce the societal and cultural divisions which perpetuate its machinations. This superficial caricature of the dialectic masquerades as debate but does not progress the memes within it to the betterment of civilisation, it mutates them to reinforce its own structure. What came first, twitter or the meme?

Antecedent to and informing the structure of our contemporary forums is the purpose of debate itself, dominance, not truth. When debate is at the heart of our civilisation this nature becomes problematic. Not only does this adversarial foundation overflow in other aspects of our lives, it also subjugates the intellectual and moral progress of our society to the ambition of individuals. By promoting the most inflammatory and superficial aspects of opposing positions, or indeed, facts, we limit the evolution of the modes and content of our thought and stifle the sublimation of human civilisation.

The media, traditional, social and otherwise, is the arena where ideas, ideals, agendas and egos bare down on each-other in a zero sum battle for the attention of a capricious and disengaged polis. How does one get air time in this environment? By eliminating the subtlety that cannot be conveyed in a headline in the hope that a little exposure is better than none. It is not however beneficial for any position to be represented purely as caricature. These pithy maxims mutate readily into heuristics leaving us with opposing sides who don’t understand each other and supporters who cannot readily defend their positions. As political decisions become more and more driven by public engagement, where social media ‘optics’ are a factor in research and other funding decisions, the media supplants the forum as the bedrock of democracy, unfortunately solidity is illusive and we build our civilisation on air.

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.”

~ Karl Marx

If the discussion were conducted though in a civil manner, much could gleaned from the convolutions of articulate arguments. This indeed is at the heart of Socratic dialogue, which fills the negative space around the truth it seeks to illuminate, refining the outline as it goes, building up the resolution, the sophistication.

”…as the dialogues go along, Socrates’ interlocutors change or refine their views in response to Socrates’ challenges and come to adopt more sophisticated views. The back-and-forth dialectic between Socrates and his interlocutors thus becomes Plato’s way of arguing against the earlier, less sophisticated views or positions and for the more sophisticated ones later.”

~ Maybee, Julie E., “Hegel’s Dialectics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The trend towards sophistication, even if one of the views is not subject to change, is of note. The inequity of malleability correlates to inequity of sophistication, the implicit assumption is that as an argument tends towards higher degrees of sophistication, it’s limit is truth. As political debate is driven by proposals as opposed to propositions, opined actions rather than opined facts, there is no objective truth factor to which the dialectic can seek to converge. Here is where the process needs to take precedence over the outcome; and for this to happen the players need to be aligned in their meta-objective. They must agree to enjoin themselves intellectually with the singular goal of evolving any proposal towards ‘higher utility’ in relation to civilisation objectives such as minimising suffering; and in so doing reinforce the intellectual and social mechanisms which facilitate such progress.

“Tak [a board game,] reflects the subtle turning of the world. It is a mirror we hold to life. No one wins a dance, boy. The point of dancing is the motion that a body makes. A well played game of tak reveals the moving of a mind. There is beauty in these things for those with eyes to see it.”

~ Patrick Rothfuss: The Wise Man’s Fear

Beauty. A concept maligned by ‘Serious People’. A useless impediment to progress. This could not be further from the truth. The ineffable, subjective captivation of beauty is the heart of the Muse, pure inspiration. Do we not want our hearts to be filled with the desire to increase the amount of beauty in the world, and hence the dynamic force of inspiration, propelling us towards further beauty and inspiration? Perhaps this perfumed treadmill may unburden Sisyphus of his boulder.

If the aesthetic of debate was captivating, the prose moving and the passion more than feigned; if the interlocutors were instead entwined, rhythmically moving through a spontaneous, erudite improvisation replete with tension, dissolution, synthesis, grace, form, respect and love; would we not turn our eyes from the coke machine glow, stirred again by something primal yet sophisticated, awoken again in our humanity and the eternal, archetypal dance with nature, chaos, culture and ourselves?

> Source ~ Nick Sousanis: Unflattenting

This may seem trite but it is not. It is how people behave when working respectfully towards a common goal, it is simply uncommon and tragically anathema to contemporary norms. Hopefully I will live to see the day when truth, beauty, respect, reason, altruism, and compassion are guiding civilisational principles. Until then all we can hope to do is strive to cultivate these values within ourselves, and promote others to embrace them as well.

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