The Lost Fine Art of Discourse

I am nearly finished reading the late Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Published in 1985, Postman, an educator and media theorist, lays out a postulation that television had created the latest (at that time) step change mode of public discourse and therefore initiated a resulting negative effect in the culture.

As described by Postman, verbal public discourse was superseded by the written word, then subsequently superseded by radio, finally by television. For each of these new communication mediums to take hold and gain popularity, they were required to do two things: provide more but less thorough content and create demand by making the content entertaining. The rapid acceptance of television provided a particularly significant ripple effect: “news,” which in earlier mediums was to various degrees attempting to remain relevant, contextual and thorough, gradually shifted toward being irrelevant, superficial, non-contextual – and presented as entertainment rather than educational discourse.

I’m certain Prof. Postman, if he were still alive to experience the phenomena of social media and 24/7 connectedness, would agree that the newest medium of the internet has taken information dissemination to a new level of irrelevance, superficiality, non-contextualization and disrespect far beyond his wildest imagination.

Rational, thorough and respectful public discourse has essentially become extinct. This past election cycle has proven that beyond doubt. How I would have longed for a different debate format, for instance: 30-45 minutes for each candidate to present their positions, and 15 minutes for the opposing rebuttal. But in today’s culture, this would not have been entertaining, and certainly would have forced a much deeper analysis of the topics, something that I believe most of the public could not handle nor would want to.

The Junto is blessed to have the boldness to embrace the original medium of discourse by regularly engaging in verbal jousting matches among its members. May the sound bite be forever anathema to our group.




One comment

  1. Jim Thorp says:

    This post calls to mymind a post from my own blog froma few years back: — and in particuar, Cardinal Newman’s lament as far back as 1852: “Such parti-coloured ingenuities are indeed one of the chief evils of the day, and men of real talent are not slow to minister to them. An intellectual man, as the world now conceives of him, is one who is full of ‘views’ on all subjects of philosophy, on all matters of the day. It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment’s notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism.”

    “This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request. Every quarter of the year, every month, every day, there must be a supply, for the gratification of the public, of new and luminous theories on the subject of religion, foreign politics, home politics, civil economy, finance, trade, agriculture, and the colonies. Slavery, the gold fields, German philosophy, the French Empire, Wellington, Peel, Ireland, must all be practiced on, day after day, by what are called original thinkers. …[T]he journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas and nutshell truths for the breakfast table.”

    So much the more, and worse, not that it’s 24/7 “news” …

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