The season of reason is gone: The alternatives to debate are fury, insults and violence

Prof. Jonathan Jansen (pic courtesy Timeslive)

Written by Jonathan Jansen

It all started as a civil discussion on my Facebook page.

The student posed a question about a problem on campus, and I answered him as gently as possible, careful not to overplay the professorial hand. He followed up with another question. I asked for clarity, probing his assumptions. All of this in an effort to raise the level of the dialogue I was beginning to enjoy with this bright young mind.

Then the unexpected happened. He lost his temper, started to swear, and I was forced to look for that useful button on my Facebook facility called "unfriend".

I was not offended - at least not any more - for I have increasingly encountered this bizarre behaviour among students. The student is not angry with me, his interlocutor.

It is the frustration at not being able to reason that explains the abrupt termination of a short exchange. The easy resort to intense anger, landed insults and even public violence on the part of South African youth is, in these circumstances, a reaction to a lack of capacity to reason. In fact, the practice of reasoning might be one of the most troubling gaps in the education of South African youth.

A good friend recently brought to my attention a powerful set of ideas by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen who speaks on the importance of "public reasoning" in a democracy. Public reasoning is fundamental to dialogue in the open on the range of complex issues facing society. If we cannot reason openly and honestly about our most enduring problems, then the alternative widely on display across the land is fury, insult and even violence.

I watched with considerable alarm one of those poorly-managed TV debates among rival politicians in the run-up to the municipal elections. There was shouting from the floor, hurled insults on the stage, furious charges and counter-charges - with the result that I could not hear much on the part of the contenders for mayor of Cape Town. What really was on display was how public reasoning has given way to public retribution.

Public reasoning values ideas over authority. It is rooted in the notion that we can best resolve social dilemmas by thinking about hard problems such as how we can reverse the incidence of HIV infections among youth, or how we can build stronger foundations for learning in the early years. Public reasoning assumes that no one party or expert or company has the monopoly on solutions to tough problems. It, therefore, implies listening carefully to the other side before responding; predetermined responses are at odds with the demands of reasoning.

Public reasoning implies the capacity and willingness to reason in public. This takes courage and assumes that confidence and competence are at hand to make strong arguments in the public sphere. But do our homes, schools and universities prepare students for the difficult and democratic tasks associated with public reasoning? I don't think so.

There are still too many homes in which parents quench the ideas or questions of children on the grounds that mother or father knows best. From a young age, children learn that the natural desire to question and argue can result in a slap or a rebuke. Far too few schools host debates and contests in which the habits of reasoning in public are honed in our education institutions. Even our preachers instruct with rigid dogmas rather than prepare believers "to give a reason for the hope that is within them".

What do we have in place of public reasoning in our national culture? We have mind-numbing Idols competitions in school and society where youthful idiots put their musical screeches on public display. We place on public television inmates locked in a house engaging in meaningless conversations while we watch them snore. We leadthe 7pm news with yet another inflammatory comment by a political leader to shock the senses rather than engage the mind. Note the flourish of stand-up comedians whose stock-in-trade is to rehearse our worst ethnic and racial stereotypes and in this way keep us laughing or, better still, prevent us from thinking.

The demise of the essay in schools and universities contributes to the loss of capacity for public reasoning among the youth. That species of writer called the essayist is also in short supply in our magazines and newspapers. And our teachers and professors become part of the culture of exam-driven education practices where coverage always trumps reflection.

(This story was provided and used with permission by Timeslive.)