There is a passage in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias whichI love. Two and a half thousand years ago, and these fellows are still with us. It speaks to the present moment; we might think we live in a different world to that of Ancient Greece, but it is just a blink away.
Plato describes Socrates visiting at the house of a friend, quizzing one of Greece’s most renowned speakers, Gorgias. Gorgias was immensely wealthy; a skilled user of rhetoric who could persuade others to his views, and those who wished to become likewise powerful and influential paid him vast amounts to be taught the tricks.
Socrates, of course, charged his listeners nothing, and he had no tricks of sophistry or drama. Just reason and respect for truth, wherever it might be found. He loved dialectic, the search for the truth through discussion, finding answers, exposing untruth. If his position was found to be faulty, so much the better! He would follow the light of the truth, even if it meant turfing overboard some cherished position. Unsurprisingly, he was often at odds with the rich and powerful in Athens, who eventually succeeded in having him put to death on trumped-up charges.
Plato, hitherto a playwright, was sufficiently galled by this injustice that he devoted his life to recording the wisdom and method of Socrates. With his own sense of drama and conflict, interleaved with characterisation and humour that is almost Jane Austen at her finest, his rendering of the collected Socratic dialogues has been pretty much the basis of Western philosophy to the present day. Everything since has been described as “… a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Pleasure in Plato
You wouldn’t think that philosophy could be much fun, but reading the dialogues in a group and paying attention to the cut and thrust of the debate, the clever remarks, the little digs here and there, it is grand entertainment. Plato skewers poor Gorgias and his tricks of sophistry in the most genteel way.
In this passage, Socrates has seized upon a discrepancy in some remarks of Gorgias. The slightest lapse and Socrates was right there, winkling a fingernail into the gap and then wrenching it apart in the most cheerful and polite manner until the intellectual shortcomings of the other were laid bare for all to see.
You, Gorgias, like myself, have had great experience of disputations, and you must have observed, I think, that they do not always terminate in mutual edification, or in the definition by either party of the subjects which they are discussing; but disagreements are apt to arise — somebody says that another has not spoken truly or clearly; and then they get into a passion and begin to quarrel, both parties conceiving that their opponents are arguing from personal feeling only and jealousy of themselves, not from any interest in the question at issue. And sometimes they will go on abusing one another until the company at last are quite vexed at themselves for ever listening to such fellows.
Our world is full of such fellows.
It is not the sole fault of the Internet and social media, but we sometimes turn into the road ragers of the information superhighway in our anonymity and easy ability to enrage or bully or demean others.
Not you and I, dear Reader, of course. No, we are committed to truth and reason, no matter what cherished beliefs may fall.
A bitter contest
In the leadup to the 2016 American election, I immersed myself in the comforting attitudes of the Left — or at least what passes for it over there. Trump was a sexist, racist buffoon. Ignorant, all but illiterate, grotesque in appearance, a boor, a bully, a bastard.
He had no chance of being chosen as the next head of state, America’s face to the world, I was told, and was happy to believe. Hillary Clinton might have been stymied twice by the urbane constitutional scholar and senator from Illinois, but now was her hour.
The barriers were falling, the glass ceilings were being shattered. Every other Western nation had had a female leader or two, now it was America’s belated turn.
Well, that was an uncomfortable day’s watching as the election results came in.
I had hot dogs and root beer to enhance the experience. I love America. The spirit and excitement, the tradition, the moral underpinnings — and failings, the sheer joy of exploring all the culture. Route 66, Disneyland, the Smithsonian, Times Square, Coney Island. The corny and colourful, the inspirational and exciting. I could touch a piece of moon rock, touch the names on The Wall, look from afar at the White House, and look from below at the sad, wise eyes of Abraham Lincoln before hitting Ruby Tuesday’s for some Hickory Bourbon Pork Chops and Barq’s Root Beer on tap.
My memories turned to ashes in my mouth as CNN marked one state after another red. How could this disaster have happened? How could I have been deceived? Had reason and truth left the building?
In a way, yes. In an effort to understand those now gleeful at the victory of their champion, I did some “opposition research”, tuning in to Breitbart and Infowars. The generic rural radio stations were all available online, and I listened to Hannity with horror in my craw.
What stuff! What fellows! Socrates would have demolished their miserable minds and exposed their tawdry tricks. Their callers were full of praise for Don Trump and scorn for the defeated lady Clinton. Online comments were just as one-eyed. So glad I wasn’t part of that echo chamber, dog-whistling my antediluvian opinions.
And yet. When I looked at my own preferred sites of Occupy Democrats, Daily Kos, The Guardian and so on, they really weren’t that much different. They had fed me untruths and advertising, harvested my clicks and personal information, given me comforting rubbish in the guise of facts I could bank on.
Looking at the comments, they had much the same self-righteous, fawning contributors, full of hatred for the other side, as the other side had had.
Did Socrates really live in vain? Is our world as full of lies and the sort of fellows who live only for their own opinions, as were the Ancient Greek sophists and their followers peddling rhetoric as a get-out-of-jail-free card?
I found a chart that displayed the various media outlets available to the American consumer. My preferred area was on the left side, down in the corner, and those I detested most were on the right side, in their own ghastly box.
I made up my mind to steer to the centre, to raise my sites. CNN, Al-Jazeera, The New York Times. They might not provide a steady diet of comfort food for the mind and my prejudices, but they would give me the facts, take a look at both sides, refrain from slinging rocks at the opposing team, and if they made a mistake, they would admit it, rather than double down and make it a lie.
I no longer subscribe to The Age here in Melbourne, but I have an online subscription to The Washington Post, and I can kid myself that if Socrates lived in Athens GA, he’d do the same.
The death of dialectic
I discovered a news site here in Australia yesterday. Giving the pretence of an independent media outlet, it has a one-eyed political bias, some questionable journalistic standards, a constant refrain for the money of its readers. It doesn’t warn the user that it is collecting cookies, yet a glance at the source code of a web page shows the tracks of Google Ads and Google Analytics all the way through.
This is the “Fake News” of Breitbart and Occupy Democrats. Serve up a series of articles, often lifted from other sites, that pander to the prejudices of the audience. People in an uncertain world go to these places for comfort, and is it really too much to ask for five bucks a month, watch a few ads, buy a little merch, get the site owner’s latest dog-whistle book, to hang out with people who think just like you do?
It’s a trap. It’s not true. Oh, some of it is, and every now and then one of these sort of sites will break some scandal, but the truth is not the aim of the game. There’s a political objective, and there’s a financial incentive.
But more to the point, these sites on the fringes of journalism encourage tribalism. The supporters bunker down, hurl rocks at any opponents and dodge the return fire. Anybody in the middle is fair game for both sides. “Get real or get out of the way,” as Barry Jones would have put it. And Barry Jones, quiz champion, one-time Science Minister, party president, national living treasure, fellow of this and that university, is a man one would imagine had heard of Socrates.
We support our team and lambast the other side. In the anonymity of the internet, some give in to insulting those who have different views or dare to point out that their team website has feet of clay. They claim the moral high ground but demonstrate the opposite.
Don Trump is the cheerleader-in-chief for these sort of tactics. Hypocrisy is his middle name, it seems, given his latest petty taunts aimed at a child who was named Time’s Person of the Year when he wanted the cover. Only a few days earlier he and his followers had expressed outrage over an academic’s tangential reference to his minor son Barron, claiming that children were off-limits in public political discourse.
Anything to avoid an uncomfortable truth, to avoid finding common ground, to escape discussing an issue with respect and dignity. The old fallacious arguments of ad hominem, post hoc ergo propter hoc and so on are wheeled out and fired at the enemy.
It may be all simplistic, jolly fun to sit in one set of trenches and hurl insults at those in the other set, but the reality is that we humans only have one planet to share, and there are perils confronting us that demand cooperation rather than conflict.
Conflict itself is a dangerous thing. We have already had one nuclear war, and in the generations since, the weapons that would be used to fight another have grown considerably more powerful, sophisticated, and prevalent. There is no point on the surface of the planet out of range of instant devastation.
And yet we see the leader of one nuclear state taunting the leader of another that his red button is bigger. Pressing even the smallest of nuclear buttons would be a disaster, potentially leading to an uncontrollable global conflict, and yet it is apparently something to joke about.
Climate change is a growing danger. There are almost eight billion of we humans on this one planet, we consume more and more resources, and our shared environment is becoming increasingly polluted and hotter. The threats to agriculture, to security and safety, to our health, and to our very survival are things that we can’t afford to ignore.
And yet, instead of planning on how best to deal with ever more serious bushfires that devastate communities, destroy immense areas of forest, fill our skies with smoke, we have politicians blaming each other and scoring political points with their eyes fixed on their approval ratings.
Like dying with the biggest bank balance and claiming a win, there’s no point to being the most popular president of a ruined land.
Finding common ground should be our aim, and the way to that is through discovering the truth. We need a love of facts, a passion for logic and reason, a gentle education for those who fall short.
Without the truth, we will surely lose the planet, and hindsight will be sore comfort as the few battered survivors survey the cratered ruins.
I cannot commend Plato’s views highly enough. The “such fellows” of the passage above are not worth listening to. They are entertainment at best, a trap to ensnare our dignity and survival at worst.
Avoid the confected outrage, the fake news, the calls to tribalism of the fringe, and seek forums where discussion is measured and reasoned, facts and reason are promoted instead of being brushed aside, and there is a search to find agreement over common ground. A useful aid to finding these places is to look for love, rather than hate. Do the supporters and visitors engage in polite discussion, or do they road rage at everyone who differs in opinion.
We need common ground. It may not be as exciting and interesting as the conflict and egotism we see on the fringes, where larger than life characters raise armies of followers on their social media accounts, but it is our future.
And, I implore you. Don’t encourage the bastards. Don’t give such fellows your money, your information, your page views and clicks. They don’t care for the world; they want your five bucks a month.