The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by Steven D. Smith ****
In the wake of the Tucson shootings we have all heard a lot about civility in the public arena. Fingers have been pointed and blame assigned, one group claiming that vitriolic rhetoric is the root cause, another pointing to the shooter’s state of mind. Given the heatedness of this particular argument, I cannot imagine a more propitious time to read Steven Smith’s “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.” It is a brilliant look at the current state of discourse in the American public arena.
By way of introduction, Mr. Smith lays out for us the problem as it is typically described by pundits of different stripes. We live in the “age of American unreason” they say, characterized by a “new species of anti-rationalism” where our “politics are now so debased that they threaten our standing as a genuine democracy”. He lists the usual suspects: an under-performing educational system, media outlets interested more in entertaining than informing, “the Internet, video games, text messaging”, and especially evangelical or fundamentalist religion, all of which contribute to a dumbed-down society of those “eager only to browse and skim, but without the patience actually to read and think”.
Though he is deeply concerned about the appalling state of affairs, Mr. Smith finds these sacred cows to be less than satisfying, as the same symptoms can just as easily be found in the academy, and even on the Supreme Court, as on the street or on talk radio. If, then, these are merely symptoms, what is the true cause? The answer he suggests is surprising and can be paraphrased as follows. In a reaction against the failure of Reason to fulfill the promises of the age of enlightenment, we have evicted from the public arena our “deepest convictions about what is really true and consented to work only with a scaled-down set of beliefs or methods that claim the support of an ostensible ‘overlapping consensus’”, understanding that “no one’s truth is going to prevail over its rivals”. In other words, in order to “keep [public discourse] from drowning in the perilous depths of questions about ‘the nature of the universe,’” we have discarded our worldviews and created a public arena that can be nothing but shallow.
The problem does not end there. The shallowness prescribed by the rules of public discourse cannot provide satisfactory answers to the most vexing problems that face society. Therefore, those who participate in the discussion have had to resort to the practice of “smuggling” their deepest convictions in to the discussion under cover of a number of disguises. We have become a society of well-meaning hypocrites, claiming to have abandoned our convictions about first principles, all the while smuggling them in the back door in the worst disguises.
All of the above is laid out in painstaking detail in the first chapter. The balance of the book is spent providing evidence to support his formulation of the question of what is wrong with public discourse in America today. He examines the most common vehicles used for such smuggling, showing how they are used in the most contentious and divisive arguments that occupy contemporary society: among them right-to-life issues, church/state division, and a non-metaphysical source of first principles. All of this might be a laborious yawn-fest, but Mr. Smith writes with conviction and a wry sense of humor that occasionally borders on sarcasm. It is a winning combination that engages the reader and encourages him to hang in there even when the going gets a little rough.
Having a good teacher can make learning even the most tedious subject enjoyable. Mr. Smith appears to have all the makings of a very good teacher. Given that his subject is one of vital importance to the life of our nation, we do well to listen to what he has to say and learn as much as we can.