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On The Rules of Public Discourse

G.  B. Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton, via Wikipedia

I have a somewhat different take on this argument than Rod does, than Kenneth Westhues does, and than Alastair Roberts, author of the post that got all this started, does. For one thing, I don’t believe in postmodernism — don’t believe that it exists at all. Every position that I have seen people attribute to postmodernism I can trace back to the sixteenth century. Even at its leading edges our culture is, I think, still very much modern. (I may explain that more fully some day.)

Even if I believed in postmodernism, though, I would interpret these contrasting discursive styles in a rather different way — though let me say first of all that I believe they exist! Here are my reservations about seeing the differences as indicative of a modern/postmodern split:

  • In many respects this difference is a common human one: the hypersensitive person who takes every disagreement as a personal slight, who is unable to distinguish between public debate and private attack, is scarcely a recent invention. There are versions of it recorded in literature at least as far back as the Creon of Sophocles’s Antigone.
  • But insofar as there has been a cultural shift, I think the existing conversation gets the time-frame wrong. The mode of rough-and-tumble, cut-and-thrust, sarcastic and hyperbolic argumentation that Westhues associates with the Shaw/Chesterton debates had already become quite restrained by then. You want sarcasm and hyperbole? Look at the debates between Thomas More and Martin Luther. Or for that matter between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
  • Similarly, the rise of personal sensitivity as a general public stance, and as requiring a severe curtailing of rhetorical force, is less characteristic of postmodernism (sic) than of Romanticism. It is a stance perhaps not invented but certainly perfected by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as I tried to explain in this essay. (Adams and Jefferson hadn’t yet received the Rousseauean memo.)
  • I couldn’t agree more than the Shaw/Chesterton debates are models of what public debate should be, but they were as extraordinary in their time as they would be in ours. Shaw and Chesterton were both “happy warriors,” and Chesterton’s humility and grace were nearly unparalleled. I don’t expect we will see their like again.

In short, I think people are describing as a very recent shift one that’s been going on for several centuries. The model that the people quoted above like is a product of the Republic of Letters that emerged from the Renaissance and learned to sharpen its rapiers in the Reformation. And if we don’t like the shift away from that model and towards one where personal sensitivity reigns unchallenged, then the primary person we ought to be blaming is Rousseau.

As for me, while I dislike Rousseau intensely, and agree with Jules Lemaître that his enduring popularity is one of the strongest proofs ever offered of human stupidity, his influence may — may — have had at one time an appropriately moderating effect on public argument.

And let me add one more point. Occasionally in the Shaw/Chesterton debates the proceedings would have to stop for a few moments because GKC couldn’t get control of himself: he was laughing too hard at a joke Shaw had just made at his expense. We can wish for a public sphere where the arguments are rougher and the sarcasm more outrageous, but we won’t benefit from it unless we can see, and feel, the point of sarcasm directed at us. If we just want the rules to be changed to we can attack our opponents more aggressively and humorlessly, in the way that Luther and More so shamelessly attacked each other, that change in rules won’t serve the common good — nor will it serve our own mental and moral health. As GKC himself said, “Satan fell by force of gravity.”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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