What we can’t think about:
The goal of political debates is not to test ideas but to kill the losing candidate.
“Newt Gingrich Fails To Knock Out Mitt Romney At Final Florida Debate,” headlined Amanda Terkel in Huffington Post (1.27.12). The trope of debate as boxing is of course so routine it’s transparent, like “fighting” a cold.
The New York Post punched its way to the deeper level when it summed up the “contest” with the larger idea of a fight to the death: “Romney, Gingrich Continue War” (1.26.12). The Post too saw the debate as boxing, but goosed up the fisticuffs by calling the candidates’ punches “haymakers,” meaning knockout blows and oblivion.
You get the idea.
Yes, the media are desperate to excite their audiences with punchy rhetoric. After all, these days the media outlets themselves are taking it in the chin. They’re in the ring slugging it out. Their problem is a culture addicted to shows of violent confrontation because violent conventions in movies and news and weatherforecasting have become so boringly familiar that it takes more and more extreme action to hold your attention. As the Bible puts it, If the salt or the cocaine loseth its flavor, wherewith shall it be salted?
But then, moaning about degenerate media has also become a tired convention. Let’s talk about the raw material.
If a policy debate is boxing, then by implication the force of argument determines a winner and a loser. Flattened, a loser is humiliated and helpless. Knock out the opponent and winners wipe out–annihilate–any possible opposition now or in the future. No need to negotiate or compromise or qualify your answers–everyone knows you’re right.
You can see where this is going. If the goal is a knockout, then the “argument” is not about testing ideas or solving problems. Deep down, it’s about killing resistance to your conviction of rightness. And if we agree with you–that’s what gives your words knockout force–then we too feel supremely triumphant. You’d think a system based on sublimated killing would be too disruptive to go on for long. But annihilation can be strategic. It’s a powerful solution to human ambivalence. We love and hate at the same time. And every action brings a reaction. This is why Machiavelli recommended exterminating enemies to avoid backtalk. Killing simplifies mixed feelings. The cycle of retaliation stops. In trial by combat, “Might makes right.” It may be primitive jurisprudence, but it guarantees that the winner can enforce the winning argument. When abstract law is weak, trial by combat makes a judgment irrefutable, so it can prevent schism and troublesome bad losers.
Knockout contests work best in an authoritarian society where people are used to one infallible boss replacing another. Ordinary people–in Wall Street slang, “the herd” or “sheeple”–fall in line. When life demands problem-solving and cooperation, by contrast, killing opponents has serious disadvantages. In the last congressional session, one side stonewalled the other on every initiative, producing an aptly named deadlock.
If sublimated bloodlust is dysfunctional in today’s complex societies, why don’t we break the habit? Otto Rank might say we get a special thrill out of the deaths of others. Nothing beats survival. A knockout gives a politician survival magic that we love. After all, the hero is promising to save us. As in combat, the possibility of death proves you’re alive, whereas the loser dies a little. Identify with a death-tainted loser and it might infect you too.
Conflicts over truth, said Otto Rank, are finally “just the same old struggle over . . . immortality.” As Becker elaborates in Escape from Evil, “If anyone doubts this, let him try to explain in any other way the life-and-death viciousness of all ideological disputes. . . . No wonder men go into a rage about fine points of belief: if your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die. Your immortality system has been shown to be fallible, your life becomes fallible” (64).
Notice that Becker conflates immortality with infallibility. The core of personality is the conviction of what is right drummed into us from birth. It’s like the operating system in a computer. It’s the core of self-esteem. You can see how it works in debates when the loser’s reputation for rightness “dies.” And you can see it in the themes that crop up in debate. Every politician promises to rescue you from death. From employment to abortion, the themes are tacitly about making more life. Between the lines the debaters attack enemies who stand for death. Combine the themes, and you have Newt Gingrich’s fantasy of a doomsday electrical wave followed by his pipedream of a colony on the moon: a transcendent escape to another planet.
Knockout mentality assumes that the difficulties we face can only be managed by radical violence and parental rescue. It operates as a binary switch: friend or foe; on or off; alive or dead. In a sinister way the mentality is close to fantasies of The Last Judgment in which the opponent is the Evil One and the eternal survivor is the cosmic Father Who Will Take Care of You. Knockout mentality won’t help you much if you’re researching cancer cells or trying to help people find work. You have to get used to swimming in complexity.
You can see why a politician might dream about escaping to his colony on the moon like Dr Strangelove planning to survive doomsday in a bomb-proof cave with a harem of fertile followers.
At some point en route to a colony on Mars, when there’s lots of time for reflection, one of the rocket crew will start to wonder why humans turn everything into a “knockout” or a “fight.” For a moment denial will stop fogging the porthole, and looking back on the shrinking blue earth, the traveler will think, “Wait a minute. Weren’t there problems we were supposed to solve back there?”