Why the Election Debates Are So Frustrating


(Because Real Discourse Requires…)

Author Rev. Dr. Jill Schaeffer
Author Rev. Dr. Jill Schaeffer

The September 6 issue of The New York Times featured an Op Ed article by David Brooks who exposed Donald Trump’s mis, dis, and simply false information about the effects of immigration on American life. But David had begun his article with something generic and anterior to American politics:

“Once, I seem to recall, we had philosophical and ideological differences. Once, politics was a debate between liberals and conservatives, between different views of government, different views on values and America’s role in the world. But this year, it seems, everything has been stripped down to the bone. Politics is dividing along crude identity lines — along race and class. Are you a native-born white or are you an outsider? Are you one of the people or one of the elites? Politics is no longer about argument or discussion; it’s about trying to put your opponents into the box of the untouchables.”

For me, Brooks’ use of the word ‘untouchables,’ drives home the nail of reductionism more deeply than mere demonization. It’s not enough that someone is different or crooked, or untrustworthy, but that he or she bears an indelible taint, an eternal mark upon the soul, a stamp of caste status.  Moreover, despite the fact that DNA makes a mockery of all attempts at freezing people along ethnic or racial lines, and that history refuses to absolutize culture or civilizations, we do it anyway because it’s less stressful and, perhaps for some, more entertaining.


Just discourse is actually a three-way conversation, with the “third” informing and being informed by the other two conversants simultaneously.

Public debate has decayed into mud-slinging, invective, and monologues, fashioning a platform where two opponents cannot relate directly with one another but only through a moderator or mediator. One near exception to the rule was Clinton’s response to Trump’s boasting that he knew more about ISIS than did the Generals. She looked right into the camera and said, “No, you don’t.” At our 222nd General Assembly, an Arab-American addressing the Assembly argued that Jesus was a Palestinian. Constrained by Roberts Rules, the rebuttal from a commissioner on the floor was addressed to the Co-Moderators. Yet the two men neither recognized one another’s existence nor spoke to each other directly anymore than Clinton and Trump can address one another directly, though for different reasons.

Levinas - Otherwise than BeingBoth candidates for the Presidency, though Clinton far less often, provoke the public to vote for personalities and rhetorical feats of derring-do rather than focus upon issues pertaining to the public good. Clinton relies upon her store of data and experience, while Trump doesn’t seem to need either. Between the two, the public learns to distrust speech itself. Stirring the pot, media aids and abets scripting personal attacks on character, perhaps because commentators themselves don’t know enough about the issues to nudge the candidates into a substantive conversation.

But, there may be a way to quiet this cacophony of vapid and rollicking noise. Two post-modern philosophers, ethicist Emmanuel Levinas and philosopher Michel Foucault are among post World War II thinkers shaken by the utter uselessness of classical philosophies and ethics, not to mention theologies, to prevent the horrors of war and degradation of the human being. I’d like to offer one idea from each man that may be of use helping us restore integrity to the public square.

In Otherwise than Being: Beyond Essence, Levinas wrote that discourse is justice, [1] that we reach out to each other because we’re hard wired to communicate and generate social relations constituting our world. But, it’s a certain kind of reaching out. If we speak or call out to one another honestly, we render ourselves hospitable, both host of and hostage to the one we’re addressing. In the vulnerability of initiating discourse, we expose ourselves to a response we cannot control. Such may be honest, dishonest, or may not come at all. When Jesus says to the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” he exposes himself to the response, which may be silence, or a lie, but, in this case, is simple and clear, “Rabbi, I want to see” (Mark 10:51). Others witnessing to that brief, effective, and deeply personal exchange, accustomed to disingenuous verbal volleying, may have felt anxiety or fear.


One consequence of the difference between the two candidates results in an inability to reduce Clinton’s acknowledgement of a third player, an issue or concern, to Trump’s inevitable two term argument: me and you with nothing “beyond.”

However, when Jesus responds, “Your faith has made you well,” he refers not to himself but to a third affection to which both are strongly committed and express: faith. Faith for both is the reference point for each. On the cross and dying, Jesus’ body discloses the injustice of deceitful speech with no exit that bares him to the responses of the crowd, responses which, that time, wait upon his death. It is only death that both Jesus and the crowd share in common; not the other side of weeping, the resurrection, when the conversation between God and the world continues, with faith guiding discourse for both world and God.

Christ Healing the Blind Man El Greco (1560)
Christ Healing the Blind Man
El Greco (1560)

This other element, the “faith” shared between Jesus and the blind man, and Jesus with his disciples after the resurrection, illuminates Levinas’ words: “Goodness is always older than choice.”[2] We are hard-wired to communicate hospitably as host and hostage, exposed and vulnerable to responses we cannot control. At the same time, a region of conversation inhabits a broader and deeper realm of space and time than any two speakers can ever know or express. Elaborating upon the theme that we are all in medias res and hardly ever begin or end anything at all, Levinas believes that we are inexorably driven by a mandate otherwise than being, to recognize and acknowledge transcendent and transcending events: another “Other” in all discourse. For Jesus and the blind man, the another “Other,” is faith.

Just discourse, then, actually is a three-way conversation, with the “third” informing and being informed by the other two conversants simultaneously. We could say that “God” or “faith” is the third, but Levinas neither precludes God nor any other “third” forgotten or ignored in favor of only two-way communication. Clinton, for instance, invariably refers to an “issue” of concern to both her and her opponent, while Trump usually talks about himself in reference to some “other” whom he may or may not like. Personalizing his candidacy enables him to avoid issues having value in their own right and discussed on their own merits. One consequence of the difference between the two candidates, then, results in an inability to reduce Clinton’s acknowledgement of a third player, an issue or concern, to Trump’s inevitable two term argument: me and you with nothing “beyond.”

Herein swarms an impassable wall of words: No matter what the subject of a debate may be, Clinton’s recognition of another “other,” invites Trump to seek the truth of the matter, a search in which both may participate. Trump, on the other hand, reduces the issue to personalities, his plus one other. The candidates are living on two different verbal planets: Clinton unable to reduce her knowledge and experience to personalities, Trump helpless to do anything else. We receive both worlds at once. The public is confused and may easily give up and murmur, like the cynical Dr. Gregory House on TV, “Everybody lies.” The media rejoices, but it is for lack of sherlocking to get at any truth.


The candidates are living on two different verbal planets: Clinton unable to reduce her knowledge and experience to personalities, Trump helpless to do anything else.

Levinas does understand how difficult it is to speak of “threes” instead of “twos.” It takes an act of consciousness to recognize and value another ‘other’: “Consciousness is born in the presence of a third party…[and] the foundation of consciousness is justice….” [3] So, it may become a stretch on our parts to select and include the “third” partner, be it an event, a context, a person, or an idea, in any act of discourse. Without that “third,” however, just discourse is impossible. If the initiator introduces truthful discourse that by Levinas’ understanding is an act of hospitality and vulnerability with two other conversation partners, which, in the case of Jesus’ discourse meant the blind man and his faith, there’s the same risk taken that Jesus faced throughout his ministry. No just discourse is safe. In Jesus’ case, he died from it.

Foucault BookBut, perhaps that’s a sign of integrity. Michel Foucault wrote a lot about self-care or care for the soul. Yet he’s not talking about “safe places or spaces,” he’s talking about the opposite. Self-care involves taking a risk. In speech or public discourse, the term he uses is parrhesia, or truth-telling risk-laden speech. In a series of talks published in Lectures at the College of France, “The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others,” [4] Foucault discusses the problematic of telling the truth about oneself, based upon Socrates’ “know thyself.” Usually, it is considered an individual pursuit leading straight to the confessional or psychoanalyst’s couch.

But, since “truth” (what is it?) and self (who am I, becoming?) are shorn of fixed and agreed upon definitions, Foucault says that he became tangled up in concepts of truth and self until he found out that parrhesia began as a political concept related with democratization, which involved power. [5] In order to “tell truth,” a person entered into a three-way conversation with his/her social world, not unlike Levinas’ three-way conversation necessary for just discourse. Foucault said, “What is involved…is the analysis of complex relations between three distinct elements, none of which can be reduced to or absorbed by the others, but whose relations are constitutive of the others…forms of knowledge [savoirs, i.e., knowing about something]; relations of power, as procedures by which people’s conduct is governed,…[and] how self-identity is constituted.” [6] For Foucault, parrhesia is a social act of political consequence. He discounts the chatterbox or non-stop mouth who “tells all”, whatever comes to mind, because that person refers to nothing outside him or herself. There is no reference to truth, no reference to any issue which has merit in its own right. Nothing is important or worthy of attention but the self in perpetual upchuck.


In this sense, the public square is their political third and, we’re obligated to be truthful and vulnerable enough ourselves to challenge them.

In the good and not pejorative sense, the parrhesiast tells the truth without “concealment, reserve, empty manner of speech, or rhetorical ornament which might encode or hide it.” Foucault’s criteria for being a parrhesiast are:

  1. manifest a fundamental bond between the truth spoken, and
  2. the person who spoke it; and
  3. a challenge to the bond between the two interlocutors. [7]

The third term points to that Truth to which both parties refer and defer to as integral to the conversation. To go back to Levinas, a just conversation must involve three partners (and may involve more):

Two-people-talking - PD

  1. the speaker, a parrhesiast who risks being wrong, thus exposing him or herself in vulnerability and the hospitality of being wrong;
  2. the addressee who, if generous and vulnerable can admit to being wrong, or maintain an opposing view; and
  3. the truth ingredient in the topic being discussed, which is irreducible to the conversationalists with its own integrity informing the speaking others.

To conclude, I want to go back to the non-conversation between the Arab Presbyterian at the 222nd General Assembly, the respondent and the Assembly itself.  Everyone, deliberately or unintentionally, chose to silence the addressor and the respondent. The bold claim and bold response could have been and, in my opinion, should have been, the beginning of a conversation, where the third term is the history of the region itself, an unlikely ally to either party but integral to the conversation.

As far as the national elections go, so long as both candidates are permitted by the public to get off the hook by refusing to encounter each other and agree to discuss an issue rather than plaster each other with rhetorical shuck and jive, the public square remains morally injured. But, obviously, the candidates and their managers are not going to change unless we call them to account. In this sense, the public square is their political third and, we’re obligated to be truthful and vulnerable enough ourselves to challenge them.


[1] Emmanuel Levinas. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. (Pittsburgh: Duquensne University Press) 1998. p. 16.
[2]  ibid., p. 57.
[3]  ibid., p. 160  (see also p. 16).
[4]  Michel Foucault.  “The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II Lectures at the College de France, 1983-1984, translated by Graham Burchel, Picador, 1984 . First Lecture, February 1, 1984.  Website: foucault.info/documents/foucault.courageoftruth.en.html.
[5] Ibid paragraphs 13-16.
[6]  ibid paragraph 14.
[7]  ibid paragraph 20.


AUTHOR BIO: Jill Schaeffer is Visiting Associate Professor of Ethics at New York Theological Seminary. She is a Teaching Elder and a long time worker in human rights and social justice ministries.

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