Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
It's one of the most elusive unicorns in the expansive fantasy landscape of philosophy: rational discourse, that true confluence of rhetoric and sweet reason that shall, emerging from the cut and thrust of argument, set us free from ideological deception, small-mindedness and self-delusion. Craziness shall melt away under the flow of sanity!
Nobody outside of the ivory tower believes in the existence of this mythical beast. Indeed, inside those same friendly confines, the hope for a sighting has mostly been dashed. One prominent anarchist thinker advises us to free ourselves from "Habermasochism": chasing after an "ideal speech situation," touted by German social theorist Jürgen Habermas, where the "unforced force of the better argument" regulates flawed human efforts.
And yet oddly, out here in the so-called real world there is a persistent belief that idealized "debate" both exists and needs special husbanding. Right now, in extended political campaign season on both sides of the border – a condition not unlike the calendar-swallowing professional hockey season – there is a recurring complaint. We have televised spectacles called debates, but where is the real debate?
It's time we acknowledged the bogus nature of these laments. Of course the current run of orchestrated bobblehead tilts are not real debates. But, contrary to all criticism, we don't want real political debates. The very idea of rational argument during campaigns survives only as a carapace, an idea-casing whose only function is to fuel grumbling about the state of political discourse.
But grumbling about the state of political discourse is the state of political discourse. This endgame embraces the comments boards and social-media feeds that comment in what is laughingly known as "real time" on what Donald Trump said to Megyn Kelly or whether Justin Trudeau managed to lay a glove on Stephen Harper. The long row of dark-suited Republican hopefuls, arrayed on the stage like chunky Identikit assassins, is actually an honest confession: There can be no convergence on truth in this free-for-all hot-air cage match. More to the point, nothing that happens on those televised sets has anything at all to do with effective governance.
Let us pause and consider what a real debate looks like. This is harder than it seems, not least because recent debate scenarios of even alleged seriousness – witness the Munk Debate series, for example, or the Sunday political talk shows – undermine the concept. Debates are not he-said/he-said confrontations of the diametrically opposed. The forgotten insight is that productive disagreement can only be generated by a great deal of agreement: on facts, definitions, stakes, and rules. None of these things hold in most political debates. For that matter, none of them hold in most discourse. There is a reason we feel that all debate voices, and not just Mr. Harper's, might as well be prerecorded.
The mistake is to think we desire something else. Effective argument challenges our long-held and cherished views; it must entail at least the prospect of changing our minds. Reason's unforced force is actual – it makes you alter your state of thought on pain of contradiction, madness, or shame. Principled disagreement among rational persons can lead to the victory of a stronger view over its rivals. Nobody wants that, least of all the people doing the talking.
Of course, these spectacles serve a purpose, as all spectacles do. They allow us to generate a simulacrum of discourse, comforting in its ability to substitute for something more rational and more uncanny. They also offer a wide ambit for comment about candidates' relative "relatability," that bugbear of focus panels and reading groups.
It would be nice, or at least more entertaining, if the people on stage had greater command of the ancient skills of rhetoric: analogies, sallies, turns of phrase. Not because these tricks would be more persuasive – that view is part of the equally ancient Sophistical fallacy – but because it would be more aesthetically elegant. Where are the jokes, the comic understatements, the artfully dropped bombs of vulgarity? Mr. Trump's comprehensive boorishness doesn't count; there's no rhythm to it.
This may all sound nihilistic, but we philosophers take the long view. Reason is a persistent but minor-chord feature of human affairs. To take a prominent example from political debate itself, Lincoln versus Douglas in 1858 didn't sink Douglas – but it did raise Lincoln's national profile, today known as his brand. He secured the party nomination and, eventually, the presidency.
History, not reason, decides. Lincoln's ascendancy was a good thing. Those who opposed him were sometimes crazy, deluded, and evil. I also think they were wrong. But the most important thing, to paraphrase Mr. Trump, is that they were losers.