Save Civil Discourse
We’re optimized for viral moments, not compelling arguments.
Garrett Kincaid — November 02, 2023
In last month’s GOP primary debate, Chris Christie made a canned quip about how we’re all going to start calling Donald Trump Donald Duck, because he’s been “ducking” the debates (woah, burn…). It was cringy and disappointing and disorienting — especially since he was asked a question about crime. But it wasn’t surprising.
Chris Christie used 30 seconds of a 90-second response to set up the playground-punchline of “Donald Duck.” That may seem misguided, or at least a little kookie, for someone who wants to be elected as the next president. But Christie’s strategy is not misguided, not in the Age of Social Media! (The fact that I’m referencing his little insult means that it was a success.) It’s no secret that social media incentivizes sensational clips and salacious sound bites. Christie was simply following the playbook: make everything a meme and optimize for viral moments, rather than compelling arguments.
Social media is a gameshow. Anyone can be a contestant, and the game’s currency is attention — the most valuable commodity of our time. To win the game, capture the most attention. To capture attention, abduct eyeballs, monopolize ear-holes, pluck heart strings, and poke nerves. Only the magnitude of the public’s reaction matters, not whether it is positive or negative; it’s all attention. If they’re reacting, you’re winning.
As technology has progressed to bring us greater quality of life, more equal opportunity, easy access to information and education, rapid transportation, and longevity, it’s also brought about new forms of media that have slowly degraded civil discourse. The best way to track this decline is to look at presidential debates through time, one for each new media-paradigm. Buckle up for a rhetorical safari through the wild lands of American politics, from Abraham Lincoln to "Donald Duck.”
From Education to Entertainment
Beside me, in the passenger seat, is Neil Postman, who will serve as our tour guide. In 1985 — more than two decades before the invention of the iPhone — Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death and prophesied the modern media-paradigm. Today, we use media almost exclusively as a means of entertainment, rarely as a means of education. This was true when Postman said it, and it’s doubly true today: “In America, we are never denied the opportunity to amuse ourselves.”
Over time, as a byproduct of technological progress, we’ve swapped soundness and rigor for sound bites and bicker. Pathos killed logos, and no one has found the body.
Lincoln and Typography
Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.
– Neil Postman
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln challenged the first-ever political pop-star to a series of debates in Illinois for a seat in the senate. His opponent was the incumbent democrat, Stephen A. Douglas. Over a few months, these men had seven debates, each of which were three hours long and had more than 10,000 people in attendance.
There were no news anchors, no prompts, no commercials. There was just two men speaking in turn, without interruption, as they delivered hour-long speeches. These debates for the Illinois senate seat were of such interest to the public that correspondents from national newspapers attended to transcribe the debates in shorthand. The entire transcripts were then printed in the papers and read by literate people across the country.
These speeches, like others of their time, were grounded in logic, reason, and rigor — punctuated by a series of long-winded dependent clauses that would confuse any contemporary listener for their tact and nuance. Here is an excerpt from President Lincoln’s first speech of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In it, he poses a question to the American people: Has slavery ever been something to unite us, or is it unlike the other goods of free trade? Is it, instead, a threat to our Union?
The great variety of the local institutions in the States, springing from the differences of the soil, differences in the face of the country, and in the climate, are bonds of Union. They do not make “a house divided against itself,” but they make a house united. If they produce in one section of the country what is called for by the wants of another section, and this other section can supply the wants of the first, they are not matters of discord but bonds of union. But can this question of slavery be considered as among these varieties in the institutions of the country? I leave it to you to say whether, in the history of our Government, this institution of slavery has not always failed to be a bond of union, and, on the contrary, been an apple of discord, and an element of division in the house.
– Abraham Lincoln
Notice how Lincoln subtly equates slavery to sin, calling it "an apple of discord." He doesn't come out and say "slavery is a sin," because that would alienate and enrage the thousands of Christian democrats in attendance, but he still gets the point across. This passage sits at the pinnacle of rhetoric and appeals to the listeners' minds rather than their eyeballs or bellies. Compare this to an excerpt from any debate this century, and you'd see a contrast more stark than dog shit sitting in snow.
FDR and Radio
Radio, of course, is the least likely medium to join in the descent into a Huxleyan world of technological narcotics. It is, after all, particularly well suited to the transmission of rational, complex language. Nonetheless… we appear to be left with the chilling fact that such language as radio allows us to hear is increasingly primitive, fragmented, and largely aimed at invoking a visceral response.
– Neil Postman
Radio did not change the importance of speech or audio. Leaders for all time have had to be articulate, charismatic orators. What radio changed was the way people listened, which demanded a new manner of speaking.
Suddenly, the president was in your living room, and his presence was no different than overhearing your uncle from the other room, ranting about current events on Thanksgiving. Suddenly, the president had to sound like a member of your family. President Roosevelt understood this, which is why he held his series of “Fireside Chats.” FDR could speak to American families as if he had personally called their landlines to quell their concerns during some of the most tumultuous periods of our nation’s history: The Great Depression and World War II.
The medium of radio demands simplicity and brevity (because that's how your uncle talks). FDR held 27 Fireside Chats over ten years. Only one lasted 45 minutes. Most lasted 30. And all of them focused on a single issue, aimed to communicate one idea. Forget those hour-long speeches and long-winded dependent clauses from the Age of Typography. On the radio, you need to keep it brief. Keep it simple. Make them comfortable.
Here’s an excerpt from FDR’s final Fireside Chat, on June 12, 1944:
All our fighting men overseas today have their appointed stations on the far-flung battlefronts of the world. We at home have ours too. We need, we are proud of, our fighting men—most decidedly. But, during the anxious times ahead, let us not forget that they need us too.
It goes almost without saying that we must continue to forge the weapons of victory — the hundreds of thousands of items, large and small, essential to the waging of the war. This has been the major task from the very start, and it is still a major task. This is the very worst time for any war worker to think of leaving his machine or to look for a peacetime job.
With the advent of radio, words were no longer presented only as speeches to in-person crowds and in papers to individual readers. Your message had to make sense and seem compelling to casual listeners in their kitchens, as they cooked dinner. FDR was competing with the clanking of pots and pans, so he spoke simply and clearly. Otherwise, he’d lose his listeners to other objects of their attention.
JFK and Television
Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it.
– Neil Postman
In the Age of Typography, what mattered was what you said — above all else. In the Age of Audio, it was how you sounded. Then, in the Age of Television, what mattered most was how you looked.
President Kennedy was good-looking and charismatic enough, as the gossip goes, to have gotten with Marylin Monroe. You think the American public had any chance of resisting his charm? (Wait, who did Lincoln hook up with? Was his wife as beautiful as Jackie? This is the stuff that matters, right?) JFK’s looks helped him in his race against Nixon, and he was the clear winner of those televised debates — mostly for his presence and presentation. Here’s one of the most punchy, persuasive bits from the first-ever televised presidential debate, in 1960. As you’ll notice, these words lack the weight and depth of Lincoln’s, but remember: for the first time ever, words weren’t what mattered.
The question is: are we moving in the direction of peace and security? Is our relative strength growing? Is, as Mr. Nixon says, our prestige at an all-time high, as he said a week ago, and that of the Communists at an all-time low? I don’t believe it is. I don’t believe that our relative strength is increasing. And I say that not as the Democratic standard-bearer, but as a citizen of the United States who is concerned about the United States.
The whole debate, actually, is a little lackluster —both the candidates’ arguments and their emotions. But can you blame them? It had to be uncanny to have camera pointed at you the whole time, to know you’re speaking to a whole nation from a sparse studio.
In the Age of Television, suddenly, everyone expected the president to be pretty. How you looked and how you sounded became more important than what you said. TV was the biggest leap from logic and rigor since the Age of Typography. It completely changed the incentives, changed the rules of the game. To succeed, JFK and Nixon had to appeal to people’s eyeballs as much as their minds.
Trump and Social Media
They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.
– Neil Postman
We’ve made it — the final stop on our rhetorical safari: the Age of Social Media.
Do you remember the criteria for winning in the modern media-paradigm? Capture the most attention by provoking the greatest emotional response, and you will clean house. What better contestant could there possibly be for that game than Donald Trump?
No matter your feelings about his presidency, it’s clear why he won in 2016. Trump won because he understood the message and metaphor of the Age of Social Media (or maybe because he was just naturally suited for it). The message: “I will entertain you, and it will happen immediately.” The metaphor: a gameshow (not unlike his own long-running reality show, The Apprentice).
If his opponents had understood media as well as Trump, they wouldn’t have given him so much negative press, so much airtime. In the Age of Social Media, any emotional response contributes to your score; positive or negative, it’s all attention, all eyeballs and ear-holes.
We’re now so far removed from the Lincoln and the Age of Typography that media has become not at all about exposition or education; it is, unapologetically and overtly, all about entertainment. And — crazy enough — presidential debates are no exception. They are a spectacle optimized for the highlight reels, diss-clips, memes, comedy sketches, and partisan commentary to be posted in the next hour or the next day.
Forgive me for subjecting you to this, but please (try to) read the following transcript in full. This is the best way I can illustrate our fall from the Age of Typography: to render a modern presidential debate as text. (In case you were waiting for it, this is the proverbial "dog shit" to Lincoln's freshly fallen snow.) Here is an excerpt from the first presidential debate in 2016, between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — featuring a news-anchor-moderator-celebrity-person (read: "Child-Wrangler"):
CLINTON: Well, that is just not accurate. I was against [NAFTA] once it was finally negotiated and the terms were laid out. I wrote about that in…
TRUMP: You called it the gold standard. [Interruption]
TRUMP: You called it the gold standard of trade deals. You said it’s the finest deal you’ve ever seen. [Interruption]
TRUMP: And then you heard what I said about it, and all of a sudden you were against it. [Interruption]
CLINTON: Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are — I did say I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated…
TRUMP: Not. [Interruption]
CLINTON: … which I was not responsible for, I concluded it wasn’t. I wrote about that in my book…
TRUMP: So is it President Obama’s fault? [Interruption]
CLINTON: … before you even announced.
TRUMP: Is it President Obama’s fault? [Interruption]
CLINTON: Look, there are differences…
TRUMP: Secretary, is it President Obama’s fault? [Interruption]
CLINTON: There are…
TRUMP: Because he’s pushing it. [Interruption]
CLINTON: There are different views about what’s good for our country, our economy, and our leadership in the world. And I think it’s important to look at what we need to do to get the economy going again. That’s why I said new jobs with rising incomes, investments, not in more tax cuts that would add $5 trillion to the debt.
TRUMP: But you have no plan. [Interruption]
CLINTON: But in — oh, but I do.
TRUMP: Secretary, you have no plan. [Interruption]
CLINTON: In fact, I have written a book about it. It’s called “Stronger Together.” You can pick it up tomorrow at a bookstore…
TRUMP: That’s about all you’ve… [Interruption]
HOLT: Folks, we’re going to…
CLINTON: … or at an airport near you.
HOLT: We’re going to move to… 
What's so terrible about optimizing for entertainment over education? Why do soundness and rigor even matter? What could be more important than knowing how much Trump paid in federal taxes and where I can pick up Clinton's book? Hopefully, you know the answers to these questions. Without soundness and rigor, we'd have no hope of finding truth, and if we keep on this track long enough, we won't even bother to ask what is true; we'll be too busy amusing ourselves to death.
Well folks, that's the end our rhetorical safari. You saw all the big cats and the wild wombats. Now, there's nothing else out here but a barren wasteland, devoid of life, devoid of logic. Thank you for joining Neil and I today. If you are concerned about the decline of civil discourse and would like to support our conservation efforts, please grab a brochure on your way out.
Join the Cause: Save Civil Discourse
What You Can Do
The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch.
– Neil Postman
We live in a democracy. That means, while you are bound to our systems and to the prevailing forms of media, you are free to rebel against the incentive-structures that undermine thoughtful, civil discourse. Within the arena of modern media, you can choose how you consume information.
Every day, every social-media scroll-session, you vote with your attention for the media-paradigm that will pervade our culture. So, vote wisely.
- Rather than listening to comedic commentary, watch or read the primary source, and come to your own opinion.
- Assume that no short-form video will educate you. Every cut is downstream of someone else’s opinion, a manifestation of their own slant on the facts. At the very least, don’t scroll a “For You” page if you’re seeking truth.
- Avoid ads wherever possible, to escape the distraction and focus on the information. Use a web-clipper to strip the text from articles and read them as pop-up free PDFs. Use the few platforms that don't rely on ad-revenue, like Substack. Or pay for ad-free access to your favorite sources of information, whether they be creators or publications.
- Understand the issues at hand well enough to form ideas about your own stance, without some pundit telling you how to respond. That way, when you do hear people speak between canned comments and commercial breaks, it will be easier for you to look past how they look and how they sound and actually compare their opinions with your own.
We are each resource-rich wells, containing a finite quantity of the most valuable commodity on the planet: attention. The objective of every social media platform, every news outlet, every product team, is to harvest that scarce resource from you. But you have the freedom to withhold it. You have the freedom to spend the most valuable commodity on the planet in any way you like, in every moment.
So, scroll with intent. Embrace exposition, argumentation, and rhetoric. Seek soundness and rigor, and swipe away from media that doesn't meet those standards. Choose logos.
What We’ve Done Right Already
To be clear, this has not been a regressive take on our nation’s technological or social progress. Rather, it is a sober account of the slow decline of one aspect of our culture and the causes of it. So, before you leave with a dystopian aftertaste in your mouth, here’s a breath-mint of optimism — a look at the progress we’ve made in areas other than civil discourse.
In the glorious Age of Typography, our leaders were debating about whether we should buy and sell humans as property, and trying not to kill each other over the issue. In the cozy Age of Audio, we were in the midst of the most gruesome war in human history; the U.S. deployed the first-ever atomic bombs; and the most popular president of all time instituted internment camps for Japanese-Americans. During the captivating Age of Television, our nation was legally segregated based on skin color, and the beloved JFK was assassinated, followed five years later by the assassination of Dr. King.
Sure, today, we may struggle to construct or comprehend logical arguments, and maybe we care too much about how we look. But at least we aren’t debating the question of slavery, losing hundreds of thousands of Americans in a global conflict, or segregating our schools.
We have come a long way as a society. But if we want to keep it from unraveling, we need to conjure the lost spirit of the Age of Typography. Otherwise, we'll continue to seek only pleasure, comfort, and entertainment from media. If we want to accelerate our nation’s progress without falling off the rails, we need to save civil discourse.
- Neil Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985 ↩
- From Lincoln’s first speech of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, sourced from the National Park Service: “First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois” ↩
- This was all strategic, not coincidental: “While these talks sounded informal, they were as carefully prepared as any of Roosevelt’s more formal public appearances — their informality of wording and phrase was built into the text” (Christopher H. Sterling – “The Fireside Chats”). ↩
- This aired during his fourth term as president, less than a year before his death — transcript sourced from The American Presidency Project. ↩
- “October 21, 1960 Debate Transcript” – The Commission on Presidential Debates ↩
- This excerpt was sourced from Politico, and I'm thankful their notation. It's the only way this cluster could be sensible at all to a reader: "Full transcript: First 2016 presidential debate." ↩