Steve Sailer: Two Modes of Intellectual Discourse: Taking Everything Personally v. Debate as Sport

Steve Sailer writes in 2012:

Much of the intellectual progress the world has made over the millennia is due to men managing to turn argument into sport rather than either a test of popularity or of physical strength.

…the superiority of debate in the British House of Commons to what we’re used to in American politics can be startling to an American observer. This is a social construct of the highest order. The British have crafted a society over many hundreds of years that emphasizes sport as a nonlethal, even potentially friendly form of male combat, and parliamentary debate as the highest form of sport. Today, most countries have legislatures modeled upon the British parliament and play British sports such as soccer…

Similar attitudes were reflected in the written spheres. A century ago, G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, say, could go at it hammer and tongs like the intellectual sportsmen they were.

It’s not surprising that Americans have never quite attained this level of intellectual sportsmanship. Nor is it surprising that the British masculine model is fading, both here and in Britain.

“In observing the interaction between Pastor Wilson and his critics in the recent debate, I believe that we were witnessing a collision of two radically contrasting modes of discourse. The first mode of discourse, represented by Pastor Wilson’s critics, was one in which sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values, and in which persons and positions are ordinarily closely related. The second mode of discourse, displayed by Pastor Wilson and his daughters, is one characterized and enabled by personal detachment from the issues under discussion, involving highly disputational and oppositional forms of rhetoric, scathing satire, and ideological combativeness.”

To provide a scorecard: you can think of Roberts’ “first mode of discourse” as the one dominant in the 21st Century, while the second mode represents an idealized 19th Century British view of discourse as sport. First = New, Second = Old.

“When these two forms of discourse collide they are frequently unable to understand each other and tend to bring out the worst in each other. The first [new, sensitive] form of discourse seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge to the second; the second [old, sporting] can appear cruel and devoid of sensitivity to the first. To those accustomed to the second mode of discourse, the cries of protest at supposedly offensive statements may appear to be little more than a dirty and underhand ploy intentionally adopted to derail the discussion by those whose ideological position can’t sustain critical challenge. However, these protests are probably less a ploy than the normal functioning of the particular mode of discourse characteristic of that community, often the only mode of discourse that those involved are proficient in.

To those accustomed to the first mode of discourse, the scathing satire and sharp criticism of the second appears to be a vicious and personal attack, driven by a hateful animus, when those who adopt such modes of discourse are typically neither personally hurt nor aiming to cause such hurt. Rather, as this second form of discourse demands personal detachment from issues under discussion, ridicule does not aim to cause hurt, but to up the ante of the debate, exposing the weakness of the response to challenge, pushing opponents to come back with more substantial arguments or betray their lack of convincing support for their position. Within the first form of discourse, if you take offence, you can close down the discourse in your favour; in the second form of discourse, if all you can do is to take offence, you have conceded the argument to your opponent, as offence is not meaningful currency within such discourse.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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