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Fr. 622

May 5, 2015

In general, Jeffrey Stout aims at expanding the boundaries of discussion in the public sphere and breaking down discursive impasses brought on by differences of opinion, belief, background, etc.. Of particular note are the methods by which we accomplish such expansion and analysis: attentive listening, earnest reason-giving, and immanent criticism to and from the backgrounds of others. What binds the overall aims and particular methods together is a distinctive view of social criticism as crucible, which Stout contrasts with that of centrifuge:

Debate often functions as a centrifuge. The force it exerts rapidly transforms an untidy mixture of appreciations and misgivings into distinct and determinate theoretical possibilities, each of uniform density and purity, waiting only for the familiar labels. We then ask – all too confidently, as if our political options had to be described in this way – whether a given contribution to the debate is really a variety of optimism or pessimism, liberalism or communitarianism, a call for conservation of the established order or a call to replace it. That established, we rapidly send it to its appointed position on the shelf, grouped with others of its kind. Any contribution that resists the process of separation seems essentially impure, so we either discard it or label it an imperfect instance of its kind (Ethics After Babel, pp. 276-277).

What Stout sees at work in public discussion falls into line with precisely this vision of testing, classing and judging. A party to discussion tests a proposition and its elements for ideological purity. Tests complete, the party then divides the proposition and classes the elements in the various categories with which it works (e.g. progressive, reactionary, socialist, conservative, etc.). Finally, this party judges the elements concerned in view of a predetermined grid (e.g. progressive good, reactionary bad, etc.). If, as Stout suggests, these elements cannot be separated in the way foreseen either due to the proposition’s structure or the speaker’s insistence, the party simply tables the proposition as unsuited for public discussion.

Strikingly, group polarization proves something of an annex phenomenon. In group polarization, as discussed here by Berit Brogaard, we recognize many of the characteristics present in Stout’s diagnosis:

Group polarization, also known as the risky shift and the choice shift phenomenon, is a tendency of group deliberation to move individual group members toward the most fanatical–sometimes riskiest and sometimes most cautious–versions of the viewpoint they initially held.

Again, discursive centrifugal forces act on the discussion through testing, classing and judging to arrive at a purer, more extreme form of the proposition under consideration. If discussion between radical leftists moves towards a proposition that best resembles an abstract ideal of leftism, we might expect that they hold up this proposition following a series of testings (what are the parts?), classings (are all the parts leftist?) and judgings (is this the best configuration of leftist parts?).

Certainly, being an annex phenomenon, group polarization unfolds via its own internal mechanisms of which Brogard enumerates two: social comparison and sub-personal one-upsmanship. As he explains here:

Social comparison occurs when people in a group are exposed to each others’ viewpoints or deliberate on a particular subject matter. We tend to assess ourselves by comparing ourselves to others, and we have a desire to be perceived favorably by relevant others, which makes us likely to assert a less extreme viewpoint, until we discover that others hold the same or a more extreme view. This, however, is only the beginning of the explanation of group polarization. If the viewpoint of other group members is more extreme than the opinion you originally asserted, then social comparison explains how you come to hold a more extreme opinion. But it doesn’t explain the emergence of a more extreme outcome for the group as a whole compared to any initial perspective of individual members. The main factor here is subpersonal one-upmanship (Isenberg 1986). Group members will tend to outdo each other as long as the more extreme viewpoint is considered desirable implicitly or explicitly. So, the group as a whole will often end up with a viewpoint that is more extreme than any starting point, when that general direction appears to group members to be in-group desirable.

Regardless, we can find much overlap between more general debate and the more specific group polarization, but one factor seems preponderant in public sphere deliberations. Namely, in all of this, recognition of preexisting categories plays a strong role, and it is precisely this recognition which inhibits participants to see a way out. There can be no imagination nor experimentation, for thought is frozen in a representationalism, much like that described by Deleuze in Différence et répétition.

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