“Idle Talk” – Civilizational Quagmire

A recent comment by a post-doctorate research fellow published in the Wall Street Journal nicely makes the case for quality discourse as foundational for civilized living with one another.

Here is his comment:

Everyone’s a Critic and It’s Time to Read the Books
A respect for ‘primary’ sources would enable well-informed citizens to counter ‘idle talk.’


Allen Porter
April 29, 2022

Would you be surprised to learn that Jesus was really a cross-dressing, gender-indeterminate “drag king”?  If so, you obviously don’t know the variant of critical theory called “queer theory” as expounded by Tat-siong Benny Liew, a religious-studies professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., who gave this subversive reading of the Gospels in an essay published in a collection of biblical criticism.

It is a cliché among academics that the humanities are in crisis.  According to Harvard historian James Hankins, part of the problem is the dominance of “critical” reading over “primary” reading.  Primary reading takes a text at face value and simply tries to understand what the author intended to say.  Critical reading assumes an author’s statements—in the Bible or anything else—can never be taken at face value.  Instead, they must be “seen through” to expose the text’s real meaning, which is determined in accord with this or that fashionable theory.

Mr. Hankins says primary reading “must be recovered” for higher education in the humanities to be effective.  I would go further.  Primary reading isn’t important only for the humanities, or even for education more generally.  The restoration of primary reading could be a crucial weapon in combating the “idle talk” that plagues American society.

Idle talk was philosopher Martin Heidegger’s term for inauthentic discourse.  It involves adopting and circulating others’ opinions about something without ever personally engaging that thing for yourself, whatever that entails: researching a topic, thinking through an idea, or reading a book.  People engaged in idle talk speak in accord with expectations for their particular identity or role, such as parent or lawyer, progressive or Christian.  They hold and express the opinions a person in their role is expected to hold.  This is an easy way to live: To know what you should do, think, say and feel, you simply need to know the social expectations for your role.

Idle talk can be harmless.  Each year my mother forms strong opinions about which films should win Academy Awards without seeing any of them, after reading articles by critics she favors. But idle talk can also be dangerous, especially in the context of a democratic state, which requires a well-informed citizenry.

Consider journalism.  The norm nowadays is for one reporter to break a story, followed by dozens or hundreds of journalists recycling that content.  They may add a little spin of their own but rarely look into the issue for themselves—even when this would require but a few clicks and a couple of minutes to read a judicial verdict or legislative text.  Some journalists scroll Twitter  to find the story of the day and rewrite it in their own words.

In political discourse, especially partisan political discourse, other kinds of idle talk tend to compound.  An academic may inauthentically produce a politicized paper on some hot topic like transgenderism, a journalist adapts it into popular form while burnishing its patina of factual objectivity and other journalists recycle the story.  Then an inauthentic reader takes his talking points from one of those news articles—or even just its headline—which he circulates in conversations and on social media.

There are millions of people who have formed what they think are the correct opinions about the Covington kids, Kyle Rittenhouse or so many other matters, without ever looking at the evidence.  Consider the hundreds of articles written about so-called anti-critical-race-theory legislation or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by journalists who never bothered to read the legislation they were writing about.

The Covid pandemic highlighted the problem, from ostracization for those daring to discuss the trade-offs of lockdowns to the sacralization of masks as a political identity marker completely disconnected from medical or scientific justification.  Not to mention the dogmatic discourse that arose over “the science” and the social imperative to “follow” it.

Social media has contributed to the proliferation of idle talk.  Authentic discourse requires time, effort and good-faith engagement, but social media tends to encourage the opposite.  As journalists opine on every topic, however trivial or traditionally unnewsworthy, the all-knowing chorus of global gossip becomes a roaring mob.  Social media amplifies this voice, pushing it into user feeds 24/7.  We hear about everything and we can’t hear about anything without also being told what opinion we should have about it—from legislation in Florida to the latest streaming series, from war in Ukraine to one celebrity slapping another on a stage in California. Opinions before facts; know what to think about something before actually looking into it for yourself.  And really, why even bother with that?

Primary reading isn’t only something the humanities need.  Our entire culture needs its value to be recognized and restored.

Mr. Porter is a postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

Now, in the Caux Round Table’s Principles for Moral Government, we postulate discourse as the moral foundation for good governance.  But what makes discourse good?

Here is our formulation, which I think incorporates Allen Porter’s concerns for the dysfunctions often associated with “idle talk”:

Discourse ethics should guide application of public power.

Public power, however allocated by constitutions, referendums or laws, shall rest its legitimacy in processes of communication and discourse among autonomous moral agents who constitute the community to be served by the government.  Free and open discourse, embracing independent media, shall not be curtailed, except to protect legitimate expectations of personal privacy, sustain the confidentiality needed for the proper separation of powers or for the most dire of reasons relating to national security.

Furthermore, “idle talk” undermines the ethics of social media and journalism, for it uses those communal assets to privilege their own idiosyncratic narratives over the more dutiful task of checking their sources, facts and assumptions for substance, reliability and truth.

The Caux Round Table proposes codes of ethics for social media users and journalists to improve the quality of their contributions to our interdependence on one another.