Democracy undermined by sophist culture

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-27 23:14:05

The fantasy that the Connecticut school shooting would change US gun culture was shattered by the National Rifle Association's (NRA) press conference on December 21. The powerful lobby group, seen by many as a critical factor in the proliferation of guns in the US, had earlier announced that it would "offer meaningful contributions" to prevent similar tragedies. 

Despite the NRA's long held pro-gun stance, there was suddenly some hope that this time the deaths of 26 innocent kids and their teachers would finally make a difference.

Then, during the press conference, the organization's spokesman Wayne LaPierre unveiled a proposal that would increase the number of weapons around children by calling for armed guards in every school.  

This echoed some conservative politicians' view that schools would be safer if all teachers carry guns along with their chalk. These declarations, made before all the victims were even buried, may sound as shocking as the tragedy itself, at least to many of us who are guided by common sense.

But common sense doesn't always work, especially with people who think they are smarter than the general public. In ancient China, a wise man named Gongsun Long, seeking to pass through a gate where horses were prohibited, famously argued that a "white horse" is not a "horse" by deliberately mixing up the word's definition and the species.

In ancient Greece, these kinds of arguments were even more popular. In one of Zeno's famous paradoxes, for example, the philosopher suggested that Achilles would never be able to catch a tortoise having given the tortoise a small initial advantage, because by the time he had got to where the tortoise was, the creature would have moved further on.

But even in ancient times, people pretty much understood that these sophists made little contribution to real lives. They made arguments for fun and to fulfill their personal interests.

In the case of Greece, they also helped establish the foundations for the Western legal and democratic system, and at the same time, buried a philosophical seed in them that is now almost uncontrollable in the US and can be detected in the political debates on almost all major topics.

In the gun control issue, for example, it is not hard to determine that more guns make us less safe. But the NRA's argument focuses on the point that guns can be used for both assault and defense and ignores the possibility that defenders can also turn into predators.  

On the issue of gay marriage, one argument from conservatives is that if the law has to be amended to include homosexual couples to protect equal marriage rights, it also has to include relationships between humans and animals, and society would then have to endorse bestiality. Would any sane mind really seek to grant animals federal welfare and health benefits available to spouses in heterosexual marriages?  

On the government's budget deficit issue, liberals who support tax increases for the rich and conservatives who call for welfare cuts fight each other in such a relentless way that it seems like the two approaches are mutually exclusive.

And sophism reached new heights during the recent presidential election as both President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney adopted the method frequently to try to score points. 

Debating is certainly an indispensable skill in a democratic society where different opinions are valued and where only the most persuasive get their way. But when the techniques and tactics of debating overtake logic and any sense of truth, debating may no longer strengthen democracy but weaken it, as is happening in the US. 

Turn on to Fox TV or MSNBC anytime and you'll find TV stations in the grip of the philosophy.

The reason for sophism gone wild in modern US is no different from the reason it thrived in ancient times. Politicians have only their own interests in mind rather than anyone else's. For them, their values largely exist in the process of the debate and victories are measured by how one comes out of it rather than whether one gets closer to the truth.

But in this era of "I argue, therefore I am," the democracy that the general public cherishes is taking a real battering.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: Columnists, Viewpoint

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