MAD Media: A Socratic Dialogue
By Tony Palmeri
Classical Greek scholars were shocked recently when an Athenian farmer tilling soil in his olive grove accidently stumbled across a manuscript dating back to the 4th century BCE. Believed to be a lost dialogue of Plato, the manuscript features the great philosopher Socrates in conversation with a dimwitted character called Hannityus. The best scholarly guess is that Hannityus was a disciple of Euthydemus, a popular public speaker in 380 BCE known to practice what Socrates called the “eristic” mode of communication. For Socrates, eristic wasn’t a form of argument designed to educate, but rather a method of humiliating opponents by showering them with verbal abuse. In the newly discovered manuscript, Socrates warns of a future world featuring eristic as the dominant mode of public discourse, with partisan verbal bullies presented to the masses as patriots. In what might be the earliest critique of media corporations, Socrates says that that “in a distant future, those organizations making profit by polluting the public discourse will be guided by the values of Mediocrity, Anti-intellectualism, and Disrespect. They will be truly MAD.” Media Rants is pleased to present an excerpt of the lost dialogue.
Hannityus: Good day Socrates. I noticed you in attendance at my debate with Democritus. You were impressed by my performance, yes?
Socrates: Good day Hannityus. Well, I heard Democritus arguing that the State ought to guarantee equality for all. To great applause, you mocked him, questioned his integrity and loyalty to Athens, and continually interrupted his attempts to substantiate his claim. Your performance . . .
Hannityus (interrupts): Certainly one as wise you does not sympathize with Democritus’ nonsense?
Socrates: As I was saying, your performance entertained the crowd with much ridicule and vivid condemnation of your opponent.
Hannityus: Much deserved ridicule and condemnation, good sir.
Socrates: And I must say that I was quite impressed by how you turned the tables and made into an enemy of the people a man who from his perspective was arguing in support of expanded rights and benefits for the people. You are quite clever Hannityus.
Hannityus: Euthydemus says that turning the tables is the height of communicative excellence.
Socrates: No, it is one of the many forms of communicative mediocrity. Like your calling Democritus an “idiot.”
Hannityus: A tactic I learned from Glennbeckus.
Socrates: Whatever. The point is that communicative excellence requires an honest attempt to discover the truth. I heard none of that in your so-called debate with Democritus.
Hannityus: Surely you are not saying that there could be any truth in Democritus’ claim that the State should guarantee equality for all?
Socrates: I do not know, as he was never allowed to elaborate. Does he mean the State should guarantee equal opportunity for all? Or does he mean the State should guarantee equality under the law? Does he mean the State should guarantee equal compensation for all regardless of effort? Or does he mean equal pay for equal work? These questions are all worth asking and thinking about, yet with all due respect your eristic approach to debate urges participants not to think. Or at least not to think very critically.
Hannityus: Euthydemus warned me that you are nothing but an elitist intellectual snob, Socrates. I must say that your comments validate his judgment of your character.
Socrates: As you wish. I am sorry to have sparked your antagonism, but the problem is not that you, Euthydemus, and Glennbeckus are anti-Socrates or anti-Democritus or anti-anyone else.
Hannityus: Pray tell oh wise one, what is the problem?
Socrates: The problem is anti-intellectualism. The refusal to take anything other than a black and white, good and evil, us and them approach to serious issues. Positions are taken not on the basis of principle or rigorous analysis, but on the basis of whether or not such positions support whatever particular team you happen to be on. It’s quite pathetic.
Hannityus: Are the so-called intellectuals any better? I’ve seen them in debates. Your student Plato, for example, and others in his Academy succeed only in putting people to sleep or leaving them in utter confusion.
Socrates: I would hardly hold up the academic intellectuals as role-models of how to debate in public. They too can be boorish, disrespectful, and willing to serve the team instead of search for the truth. In fact I can imagine a future in which intellectuals become a professional class that uses its brain power to aid and abet extremely abusive governments, businesses, and other institutions. They’ll create lies instead of expose them. Such “intellectuals” will be worthy of contempt.
Hannityus: You enjoy forecasting the future. Tell me, what will be the future of my brand of public debate? Surely it will someday rule the world?
Socrates: Those who can profit by polluting the water and air will do so. They can be stopped only when people acting collectively decide they no longer will tolerate drinking dirty water and breathing toxic air.
In a distant future, those organizations making profit by polluting the public discourse will be guided by the values of Mediocrity, Anti-intellectualism, and Disrespect. They will be truly MAD. They will be stopped only when people acting collectively decide they no longer will tolerate madness.