Month: August 2019

Is Public Discourse Useful?

The 90th birthday of political philosopher Jorgen Habermas has re-ignited a debate that also undergirds a good portion of First Amendment theory.  In an age of increasing polarization and discord, scholars and laypeople are questioning whether discussions can be rational, productive, and socially beneficial.  Habermas articulated a vision of “communicative rationality,” in which discussion leads to greater human understanding and rational insight.  Social and cultural crisis comes when people no longer care about, as one Habermas defender puts it “intergenerational cultural transmission” or reaching understanding with our political and cultural opponents.

Other philosophers and even legal scholars take the position that more speech is not always better, does not lead to better outcomes, and does not make us more rational – because we care more about identity and emotion (or faith) than logic and evidence.  Just look at Brexit, or climate change, they argue – issues where public discourse leads us away from the proper course of action.  Action, some argue, is what is needed right now to alleviate human suffering, and dialog often obscures more than it illuminates.  I recommend you read the highly edifying debate over Habermas and his ideas.  I would like to take the opportunity, fully amenable to discussion myself, to confront some aspects of whether unfettered discourse is or can be beneficial.

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