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Why We Can’t Persuade Each Other

Many people insist that political discussions in the United States are ugly and pointless because we have a “cultural divide.” Supposedly the U.S. population is divided into warring tribes who will never get along. It’s the Jets versus the Sharks, and there’s bound to be a rumble:

But if that were really true, then the cultural divide would be between families. It wouldn’t be within families! What we’re seeing is more like the Generation Gap that arose in the 1960s and lingered in the 1970s:

The popular television show All in the Family reflected a lot of discussions that were going on back then. Archie and Meathead could never agree on anything, but that’s largely because they weren’t supposed to. No good dramatist ever writes any dialog in which the characters agree with each other! Who wants to watch people sitting around agreeing with each other?
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What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate!

Some people tell me that we have a cultural divide in the United States and that the ugliness of our political discussions results from a failure of the people on the two sides to communicate. In other words, “what we have here is a failure to communicate”:

Some people think that discussions of political issues are inevitably ugly. I disagree. I think that political discussions can be enlightening and enjoyable. Political discussions get ugly when people start using ugly debating tactics. They often use ugly tactics out of frustration when their efforts to persuade other people don’t work.

Photo by classic film scans

Political Discussions Don’t Have to Be Ugly

Some people think that discussions of some topics are always ugly. They think that the best way to avoid this ugliness is simply to avoid talking about politics, religion, money, or sex. But if you can’t talk about religion, then you can’t talk about what you think is true and what you think is right. If you can’t talk about money or sex, then you can’t talk about what you want. If you can’t talk about politics, then you can’t talk about what you think should happen. Worse yet, you would have no way to work with others to make the good things happen.

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Why American Political Discussions Are Ugly and Pointless

Most people in the United States were taught that it is impolite to talk about politics, religion, money, or sex in public. As a result, we don’t know how to talk politely about politics. Furthermore, most of our political discussions turn out to be impolite discussions about religion, money, or sex.

After having listened to these impolite political discussions for many years, I think that the problem boils down to a basic failure of our educational system. Our schools are not teaching the skills that one needs in order to participate in rational, productive conversations. Our political conversations get ugly because people have never learned how to “use their words” to find truth and settle conflicts. The disciplines that help people learn how to do this are called the liberal arts. They were called the liberal arts because they were the kinds of skills that were considered appropriate for free people, as opposed to slaves. Slaves could be taught the mechanical arts or the servile arts to make them more valuable as workers. Instead of being taught how to find truth for themselves and advocate on their own behalf, they were given Noble Lies (propaganda) to keep them in line.

In the universities of medieval Europe, the liberal arts curriculum consisted of seven subjects. The first three of them were called the trivium, which literally meant three courses. The trivium consisted of grammar, dialectic (logic), and rhetoric. Grammar is the study of the rules for putting together meaningful sentences. Logic is the study of arguments. Dialectic is the process through which people use arguments to improve their understanding of a subject. Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech.

The word trivial came from the word trivium. Originally, the word trivial meant that something was so fundamental that you didn’t need to explain it to an educated person. Mathematicians still use the word trivial in this sense. Eventually, however, the word trivial came to mean unimportant. I argue that the studies that made up the medieval trivium are not trivial. They should be central to free public education in any decent society.