America is in danger from irrational thinking

Historically, democracy always has been sustained, and nurtured by rational deliberation. If our habits of communication don’t change, what happens to this great experiment we call the United States?

SHARE America is in danger from irrational thinking
Members of the white nationalist Patriot Front march down South Michigan Avenue in the Loop on Jan. 8, 2022.

Members of the white nationalist Patriot Front march down South Michigan Avenue in the Loop on Jan. 8, 2022. Our overheated political discourse is a danger to democracy, Richard Cherwitz writes.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

For the last few years, a question haunts me, and perhaps no doubt many of my fellow citizens and teachers: What happed to rational deliberation and the willingness to be persuaded — and will this kind of discourse be restored?

As a communication scholar who studied political rhetoric, I spent my entire professional career teaching a course in argumentation and advocacy, and researching the role of argument in public discourse. This teaching and research emphasized the importance and necessity of rational and logical reasoning, as well as a willingness by arguers to engage in “self-risk,” which means entering argumentative exchanges and admitting the possibility that their views could be changed — thus demonstrating an openness to persuasion rather than being dogmatic.

Moreover, I assumed that people indeed are capable of detecting, exposing and not being taken in by fallacious reasoning. Let me be honest and transparent: I am a Democrat who voted for Joe Biden in 2020. This notwithstanding, and contrary to the perception of some individuals outside of academic institutions, I did not preach or indoctrinate my students in liberal ideology.

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As I taught them, spurious and non-rational discourse is practiced by persons of all political and ideological beliefs. Through examples, I consistently showed students that examining messages from a rhetorical perspective is not inherently nor necessarily political.

Perhaps I have become a cynic. But viewing the discourse of the past few years makes me wonder whether we now live at a moment in history where the traditional principles of argumentation — dating back to the work of rhetoricians in ancient Greece and Rome —guide and govern our personal and political discourse and behavior.

One need only observe recent political events — school shootings in Texas and elsewhere, debates about abortion in the post-Roe v. Wade world; the passage of legislation banning books; efforts to eliminate university tenure and initiatives promoting diversity, equity and inclusion; the large number of citizens who believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen, as well as related conspiracy theories — to understand the legitimate basis for my serious concern.

Obviously, I hope I am wrong. However, if my suspicion is correct, it is not an overstatement to say that the end of democracy is a real possibility. After all, historically democracy always has been sustained, perpetuated and nurtured by rational deliberation — something not found in autocratic countries.

From a selfish perspective, I fear that what I taught and researched for more than 40 years might have been done in vain. As the media and political pundits often tell us, we now are at a inflection point in American history. This requires us to think deeply about how we argue and how our political discourse, whether spoken by the right or left, must be changed to guarantee the survival of this great experiment we call the United States.

My hope is that this challenge to reflect — thoughtfully and in a nonpartisan manner —about our habits of communication will be taken seriously by persons of all political and ideological stripes. Not doing so bodes poorly for our democracy.

Richard Cherwitz, Ph.D. is the Ernest A. Sharpe Centennial Professor Emeritus, Moody College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin.

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