The Triumph of Emotion Over Reason
Earlier this March, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors David Hogg and Cameron Kasky appeared on “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Kasky used the opportunity to respond to those like NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch who he feels have used the activists’ young age as an excuse to say they don’t know what they are talking about. Kasky boldly declared: “We’ve been locked in a classroom. We have seen our friends text their parents goodbye. We are the experts. We know exactly what we’re talking about. How dare you tell us we don’t know?” Having endured a horrific and traumatizing experience, it’s understandable that Kasky would answer critics with emotion. The bigger problem is that such emotional arguments have become the norm in our society.
As Charles C.W. Cooke recently argued in National Review, it is wrong and belittling to dismiss Hogg and the other activists from Parkland simply because they are young, just as it is wrong to say that they should be immune from criticism on account of their age. If these students want to chime in on a national debate, it is their right to speak their minds and enter the scrum. Accordingly, their ideas should be criticized and praised under the same criteria as anyone else’s. In that spirit, it is rather difficult to accept Kasky’s claim to expertise solely by his being present at the scene of a horrific crime.
But that’s an old-fashioned appraisal of what constitutes expertise and knowledge. On both sides of the political spectrum, logical debate and analysis have been increasingly replaced by emotive signaling. Whereas previously Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in multiple three-hour formal debates, today cable news political discussions amount to two people who disagree to some extent exchanging barbs over three-minute spans. And while one can still find thoughtful and nuanced pieces in the written media, thanks to our short attention spans in the age of the internet such takes are the exception rather than the norm. Nuance doesn’t get clicks; emotive signaling to one’s own side does.
This societal trend has been noted by political theorist Claes Ryn, who in his 2003 book America the Virtuous argued that the morality of Western civilization that emerged from classical and Christian traditions is being supplanted by what he terms the new morality. Under this new morality, moral evaluation is based not on the consequences of one’s actions, but rather on emotionally expressing the correct views and opinions. Notably, this form of moral evaluation is not very concerned with the results of the actions one takes; merely with the communication of those proper thoughts.
This slide has even reached the college debating circuit, one of the last places one would think emotion would triumph over reason. Yet according to Dr. Bradley Murg, a political scientist at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) who coaches the school’s debate team, college debate has devolved to the point where teams often fail to even address the resolutions they are supposed to be arguing for or against, and instead shift the discussion to topics of social justice. According to Murg, “the entire idea of debate is undermined when winning rounds is based on a ‘more left-wing than thou’ strategy designed to appeal to the political leanings of the debate community [overwhelming left-wing] than to seriously engage issues at hand.”
Things have gotten so bad that the SPU team has actually decided they’re going to limit themselves to participating mostly in debate tournaments hosted by other Christian universities where “the focus is on policy rather than ideological conformity.”
The shibboleths differ, but at the end of the day people on both the left and right have fallen into this trap, as both Antifa and the alt-right have demonstrated. Political discourse for those groups neglects communication meant to argue or persuade in favor of scoring points amongst their own groups. For the alt-right, this usually involves endless internet trolling about race and “cucks,” and for Antifa it usually takes the form of condemning various injustices and oppressions using the terminology of critical theory. The minute someone from either group opens his mouth the other side stops listening. The end result is that no meaningful and persuasive communication is possible.
Logic and reason provide a common framework for those with differing views to organize their ideas for evaluation. But logic and reason are much more difficult than mere emotive expression. To argue persuasively, one must do one’s research and back up one’s arguments. Under the old way of doing things, someone was considered an expert if he’d acquired a certain degree of knowledge about a subject and could argue persuasively for his stance. Now all that is necessary is the mastery of the correct emotive expressions.
Through Antifa and the alt-right we can already see where the breakdown of the ability to communicate leads: violence. If this substitution of emotion for reasoned debate continues, eventually smashing your opponent’s head in during a street brawl will be the only language of persuasion that people understand. Without logical discourse as a means of keeping our emotions in check, violence will be increasingly used to settle differences, and society itself will not survive.
Zachary Yost is a Free Society Fellow with Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @ZacharyYost.