Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sound Reasoning, Not Sound Bites: Remembering the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

On this day in 1858 - 150 years ago - the Lincoln-Douglas debates began.

In the chapter on "The Typographic Mind" in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote, "Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln's reply."

Postman goes on to describe an earlier Lincoln-Douglas debate that lasted seven hours (not counting a break for dinner). Postman adds, "What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory? ... Especially without pictures of any kind?"

Lincoln, Douglas, and their audience were living in a typographic (print-based) age, wherein public speaking was based largely on typography. No television, no radio, no Internet, no video games, no Super Bowl to watch, no cell phones or even landlines to answer.

Now we are in the age of entertainment or "show business." Hence, we have, in general, short attention spans. Our political "debates," televised of course, are nowhere near three to seven hours in length, tending towards style over substance. We look for the sound bite, not sound reasoning.

Consequently, many lack discernment, coherence, understanding, and depth of communication. But we have style. God help us.

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