Bob Talisse’s new book explores the dangers of commentary-driven news media
by Jim Patterson
photo by John Russell
A little respect could go a long way in preserving democracy in America, says Vanderbilt professor Bob Talisse in his new book.
Democracy and Moral Conflict, published by Cambridge University Press, takes a look at the level of political debate in modern America. Whether it’s Rush Limbaugh and Fox News on the right or MSNBC and Michael Moore on the left, Talisse is disturbed by what he sees.
“If there’s a danger to democracy, it’s the attitude that there’s no reasonable opposition to the view that someone happens to favor,” said Talisse, associate professor of philosophy and political science. “If that’s true, democracy has got much larger problems than having made the wrong decisions about wars and energy policy and all that.
“Those are serious mistakes, but we can correct them,” he said. “But if we give up on arguing civilly, everything else falls with it.”
John C.P. Goldberg, a law professor at Harvard University, called Democracy and Moral Conflict “a timely, original and unapologetic defense of constitutional democracy.”
“Artfully blending careful philosophical analysis with contemporary illustrations and accessible prose, Democracy and Moral Conflict makes an authentically democratic and powerfully reasoned case for democracy,” Goldberg said.
The death penalty, abortion, health care reform, gay marriage, stem cell research and euthanasia are issues that have polarized Americans, Talisse said. There is – in the minds of many people – no middle ground.
“Take abortion,” Talisse said. “What do you say to a person who has looked rationally, sincerely and calmly at the issue and come to the conclusion that a fetus is just like a baby? To them, it’s tantamount to the government saying it’s OK to murder some people. Why not rebel if we are committing a holocaust?”
On the other hand, the opposing viewpoint that the bodies of women are private and should not be intruded upon makes just as much sense to those who believe it.
“What are these two people going to say to one another?” Talisse asked. “There’s no compromise here.”
The media has increasingly become part of the problem, Talisse said. Instead of devoting itself to nonpartisan reporting of the facts, the media all too often proves the road to ratings is paved by pandering commentary.
“Think of the slogans of popular political commentary,” Talisse said. “There’s ‘The No Spin Zone’ and ‘Fair and Balanced.’ But it’s not fair, always. In practice, it not only doesn’t meet that standard, but subverts the standards.”
The same thing happens on the left.
“Michael Moore is a really good example,” Talisse said. “He maintains that there’s some truth out there or some fact that is really important for you to know and people are trying to keep it from you.
“This unearthing of a conspiracy, or revealing the thing that the powers-that-be are trying to hide from you, pervades the political commentary business.”
Commentators on the right and left also both maintain that there are simple answers to complex issues. The unspoken assumption – sometimes spoken nowadays – is that anybody who can’t understand that simple answer is unintelligent or silly. Witness Al Franken titling his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, or Ann Coulter’s How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): The World According to Ann Coulter.
“People are now able to select where they will get their news on the basis of which outlet is going to confirm the views they already hold,” Talisse said. “If we create these echo chambers in which we keep hearing the confirmation of our own views, we become less and less able to draw the distinction between people who are wrong and people who are stupid.”
And most issues aren’t simple.
“There are libraries of books full of the intricacies of the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, gay marriage and everything else,” Talisse said, “and you soon realize that these are much more complicated issue than any one person could master in a lifetime.
“I can see the attraction in a world viewpoint that the world is smart people and ignorant people, and the smart people are able to tell you in simple, plain language what the truth is about things. Everybody else is just silly, so you don’t have to bother to listen to them.”
Philosophers usually respond to these concerns by appealing to liberty or peace as overarching moral values, Talisse said. But that line of reason fails because someone who thinks abortion is murder might feel more strongly about that issue than about keeping the peace.
The answer, Talisse believes, comes in the realization that the correct position on any issue can withstand – and even be buffeted by – spirited debate.
“If you care about the truth of your position on some controversial issue, then you must also care about maintaining the social conditions under which the best reason, evidence and arguments with respect to your position can be brought to light,” Talisse said. “That’s not because we’re wishy-washy and we have to let everybody express their views, but because part of what it is to believe your view is true is to believe it can survive all the objections that your opponents would bring to it.”
There’s also the possibility that the debate might bring out the flaws in an argument and cause a diehard believer to reconsider. Sometimes, the argument might be lost. That can be positive too, Talisse said, forcing the loser to research further to buttress their viewpoint or perhaps even accept that they may have been mistaken.
“A civil argument is not always calm,” he said. “A civil argument might be heated and voices might be raised. But when an argument is civil it’s because it’s aimed at assessing and addressing reasons and arguments and evidence, rather than assassinating people’s characters or trying to shout them down or cast them as unintelligent or not properly rational.”
So, is there any media outlet Talisse would recommend as trustworthy?
Like a true philosopher, he suggests we answer that question for ourselves. However, there is one rule of thumb that can be helpful, he said.
“Any outlet which presents a complex issue as so simple that there’s just one smart view and everything else is dumb, we should distrust.”