Monday, February 2, 2009

The purpose and pitfalls of open discourse

Evan raises the question of what an “open discourse” looks like, later adding the qualifier of an “open public discourse”. This theme reminded me of a work that I am only marginally familiar with – Karl Popper’s The Open Society and It’s Enemies. In it, Popper once again makes his case against Hegel, Marx, and historicism by emphasizing that knowledge is “provisional and fallible”, necessitating an openness to diverse opinions. The fallacy of totalitarianism and communism is to assume that well informed individuals can organize society according to deterministic laws. Popper points out that Plato makes a similar mistake in empowering his Philosopher King. More recently, and perhaps more benignly, I would suggest that we see this impulse in the writing of John Kenneth Galbraith, who heralds the rise of the Technocrat as a replacement of the Bureaucrat in social organization.

In democratic societies, we place a premium on open discourse because we believe that the laws of social organization don’t operate as predictably as the laws of physics. If determining whether foreign aid should fund programs that provide abortion services or whether a school bond initiative should be adopted could be accomplished by plugging some numbers into a formula, the argument for free speech and democracy might be much weaker.

I think what Popper’s analysis ignores is the more fundamental distortions of language that make it susceptible to the same kinds of tyranny that an “open discourse” is designed to protect against. The kind of tyranny I have in mind is the “discursive framework” or double-speak that is attached to the words and phrases that structure our public discourse. A discursive public square is a defense against the proclamations of a Philosopher King, but if the speech used in the public square is blunted or co-opted, there is no reason to put blind faith in "open discourse".

One example that comes to mind is the reemergence of the term "socialism" in American political discussion. Barack Obama and his domestic agenda is what is most often refered to as "socialist" particularly since the infamous statement he made to Joe the Plumber about "spreading the wealth around". What is most ironic about the media and the public's newfound love affair with this word is the conspicuous absence of socialism in the United States, a topic addressed in Seymour Lipset and Gary Marks' famous book "It Didn't Happen Here." No platform of either party even resembles socialism - a rarity in the industrialized world. And even if one of them did, the platforms of the two parties are so similar on the fundamental questions of social organization (i.e. - a progressive income tax, social insurance, etc.) that the differences between Democrats and Republicans can hardly be attributed to socialism on the part of the Democrats. Some of the nation's most celebrated Cold Warriors were Democrats, and the fundamental outlook of that party hasn't changed substantially since the early years of the Cold War (something that cannot be said for the Republicans, who brilliantly reimagined themselves in the late 1970s). There are definitely important questions of appropriate government intervention to address in public discourse today, but a discussion of socialism is wholly irrelevant to the issues before us. And yet, "socialism" is central to the current public discourse!

Why is that? Because new meaning for words is far easier to impose on the public discourse than new initiatives are. It is easier to reinvent the Earned Income Tax Credit (an instrument imagined by a conservative economist and initiated by a conservative president to supplant welfare) as "socialist" than it is to eliminate it.

We should guard the words we use, and use those words very precisely. We shouldn't use words like "socialism" unless we're discussing the abolition of private property rights and the collectivization of the means of production under the power of the state. In other words - we probably shouldn't use the word "socialism" in relation to American policy making at all. We should also be careful about applying terms like "fascist" to the Bush administration or Israel. The faults of the Bush administration and the state of Israel are very real, but a fair-minded assessment of those faults very quickly show that fascism has nothing to do with it. Only a handful of regimes in the world today could possibly be described as "fascist". When we identify our two political parties with the extremes of the political spectrum - socialism and fascism - we are discounting the rich "middle ground" policies that are actually being considered.

Who do I blame for this? I blame the Ann Coulters of the world who sell books by redefining words like "treason", "guilty", and "liberal". It's particularly sad because she makes her living as a writer who uses the English language every day - and yet her millions have been made from redefining hot-button words. At one time, "treason" meant betraying your country. Now it means betraying Coulter's idea of what the country should be. It's not the first time "treason" was defined that way. John Adams' Alien and Sedition Act had a similar interpretation of the word.

We should also blame people like Cindy Sheehan and the crowd, who take perhaps legitimate concerns about the war in Iraq and superimpose language of fascism, Nazis, and "blood for oil" on the issue. has also committed what we might call the "Coulter Fallacy" of assuming that betrayal consists of turning your back on a very specific interpretation what the county should look like. Recall the full page New York Times ads that ran about "General Betray Us", mocking Gen. Petraeus and accusing him of betrayal. had several good, legitimate points to make that where very critical of Petraeus - as Coulter surely did about the historical treatment of Sen. McCarthy - but they both chose an irresponsible short-cut. They chose to make their point by distorting language and the meaning of words.

I'm not trying to say that catchy titles are bad. But when you write titles, you have to consider how you're using words. Did General Petraeus "betray" us, or was he unobjective and misleading to Congress? Wouldn't it have been better to say "General Petraeus is Misleading Congress about the War in Iraq"? It's still certainly accusatory and eye catching. But presumably the word "misleading" is more defensible than "betrayal". The same goes with Coulter. Instead of "Treason" (my understanding is that she argues that liberals, as a group, are basically traitors to their country), she could have used the title "Ungrateful Whiners". It would capture what she's trying to say about the slander of Sen. McCarthy's record and her views on liberals without accusing them of being traitors - an accusation which is clearly false.

In conclusion, we all need to refamiliarize ourselves with Orwell's "Politics and the English Language". I'll leave the reader with a line from the conclusion of that piece:

"I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end."

1 comment:

  1. Is this indeed your first post? Then you are off to a good start.


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