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Fr. 664

August 21, 2015

What comes out of the polarization of discourse in the end? The picture, which Heath paints, finds little redeeming in the resultant state of discourse.

I don’t know how many talks I’ve been to where the question period goes this way. Someone presents a view that a solid majority of people in the room think is totally wrong-headed. But no one is willing to say things like: “I don’t think that what you are saying makes any sense” or “you have no evidence to support this contention” or “the policies you are promoting are excessively self-serving.”

In the absence of median positions, which might further discourse, the polarizing positions leave the discussion with no way forwards. In addition, the social dynamic hinders these median positions from coming out until well after they would have served a discursive purpose. Consider Heath’s portrayal of the post-talk discussion:

Then of course, out in the hallway after the talk, people say what they really thought of the presentation – at this point, a whole bunch of entirely reasonable criticisms will get made, points that probably would have been really helpful to the presenter had they been communicated. The end result is a perfect example of what Timur Kuran refers to as belief falsification […].

In the end, the victim finds himself in a philosophical echoing chamber or feedback loop, if you will, where falling short of emancipatory social praxis and enduring ad hominem attacks leave the victim with only one seemingly viable path: double down on radical praxis. With this comes the danger of tailoring a position to a group which is, practically speaking, in no need of convincing. Yet if discourse is to accomplish anything, it should concern itself precisely with those participants or groups in need of convincing. As the term’s etymology suggests, the “discourser” cannot content herself with closing herself off and remaining in place but, instead, must run about and make herself available to other “discoursers”.

There may be further joined to this an alteration in the victim’s perception of reactions falling between the poles. This owes entirely to the divisions structuring the victim’s ordinary experience of discourse and interaction with participants:

Since the only people willing to speak up on the right-hand side, so to speak, of the presenter are people who have views that are morally offensive to the presenter, it can easily lead to the perception that anyone who disagrees with you is, for that very reason, morally suspect. In other words, over time the “me” studies practitioner notices a strong correlation between “people who disagree with me” and “people who have moral views that I find reprehensible.” As a result, it is easy to lose sight of the possibility of reasonable disagreement – in particular, the possibility that people might broadly speaking share your moral convictions, and yet disagree with you about what should be done about them, or what justice requires in terms of redress, or even just about some entirely empirical or pragmatic question.

In fact, the problem is precisely that of dismissing the category of reasonable disagreement or, more simply, to see dissent as “unreasoned”. For disagreement has become strongly associated with one of the poles, namely, that with which reason-giving cannot take place due to a lack of sincerity and epistemic responsibility. As a result, dissent itself seems likewise a matter of insincerity and irresponsibly held positions (if for no other reason than human patterns of association).

Once perception is altered, the victim reacts in a manner befitting the perceived lack of sincerity and epistemic responsibility. This most often takes the form of moralizing, punishing, shunning, etc., in either individual or group form, which seems just as detrimental to securing fruitful discourse as those attitudes behind the victimizing.

This dynamic may help to explain why the reaction that so many “me” studies practitioners have to criticism becomes so highly moralized. They begin to think that all criticism of their views arises from some morally suspect motive. This is what then gets referred to as “political correctness,” namely, the tendency to moralize all disagreement, so that, instead of engaging with intellectual criticism intellectually, they respond to it punitively.

Heath judges the discursive situation largely unsalvageable at this juncture. Presumably, this holds so long as the structures and expectations underlying discourse remain unaltered. Whatever their discomfort, participants from median positions owe it to victims, discourse and themselves to elicit reaction and targeted reformulation from victims. Inversely, victims owe it to participants, discourse and themselves to make their case in such a way as to reach the broadest audience possible. As long as those structures and expectations remain in their current state, they exclude the possibility for criticism and genuine development of any participant’s position relative to the issue qua “discourser”.

The danger that this trend poses to an account like our own makes itself felt with the subtitle alone: “In search of self: Crafting a grammar of identity”. The unavoidable reference to identity brings with it all the baggage with which the term itself is loaded. This accounts in part for the care we have taken in setting out, crudely put, “good” senses of identity from the “bad”. Indeed, this has proven and will continue to prove the most difficult task before us: rescuing a meaning of identity secure from semantic overload.

At its simplest, this effort boils down to the following: set aside all references to identity which bring discourse to a close; promote all references to identity which allow discourse to continue. Put another way, we are to promote instances in which the reference to individual (qua personal history of the organism) and identity (more or less self-conscious image projected by person) can render explicit relevant features of the participant’s conceptual background, i.e. make clearer the reason(s) for the participant’s position and demonstrate epistemic responsibility on her part. Once made clear, other participants can identify those features in need of change if the participant is to come to consensus (and vice versa). So long as the precise reasons for disagreement remain unclear, discourse cannot meaningfully move forward.

It is for this reason that our account both recognizes and takes on the challenge posed by identity politics and “me studies” and, ultimately, comes out the stronger for it. Indeed, it anticipates precisely such difficulties and suggests, in broad strokes, where to go from there.



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