Problems with public discourse again (and again, and again…)

Recently, people have been been wondering about the clamor for correct speech, from both the Left and the Right. There are just some things we’re not supposed to talk about in certain quarters – whether this is a discussion of a rape narrated in a work of literature in an English studies course, or about the non-Christian deism or skepticism among the writers of the US Constitution. People are just too damn sensitive these days. We forget that an honest public discussion on shared concerns should deal with the realities of life’s experience, and the disappointments of history, however harsh. This is a problem that bubbles up time and again in American public discourse. America has been a Puritan culture since… well, since the Puritans first landed here. (They were not escaping the religious intolerance of England, they were running from the religious toleration they found in the Netherlands.)

Puritanism, need not be claimed by only one ideology. It is a rigid attitude toward social behavior, demanding that what one person, or one group, sees as the right and the good ought to be accepted by everyone and abided by. So there are many forms of puritanism, across the cultural and political spectrum. Since it stems from a ‘will to be right,’ which is endemic among those belonging to cultures open enough to engender serious disagreements, it will keep rearing its ugly head again and again, causing pain to those successfully repressed, and push-back of various rebellious spirits – including competing forms of puritanism.

But while we should always increase our understanding of the problem, that doesn’t mean we will ever be able to rectify it. The variable factors are too many, too historically entrenched, and too many people are invested is the most troublesome of them.

Two things I’d like to note. First, of course, the obvious – all societies engage in discourse management and limitation. ‘We don’t talk about such things;’ ‘a proper lady/gentleman would never use such language;’ ‘say that again, child, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!’ Such cautions were common in my youth. The free speech movement of the ’60s led to their eventual disuse; but they’ve obviously been replaced by other cautions, motivated by different interests. Were these eventually discarded, they would simply be replaced. Social interactions, to proceed smoothly, must have some sense of direction, and of boundaries that cannot be crossed. Some of these boundaries are rather obvious in a given context: A white supremacist skinhead should probably not spew his racism when he’s in the midst of bloods in the hood. Knowing such boundaries and maneuvering through them is part of the skill of speaking with others. An individual is his/her first censor, and should be.

Second: America doesn’t have only one culture, and never has. The very hope for one was lost with the Louisiana Purchase. Throughout the 19th century, when people wrote of ‘American culture,’ they were actually talking about the culture of the Eastern seaboard. By the 1920s, this myth became harder to sustain, as emergent cities in the West began defining themselves, while regional politicians began stoking grudges born in the Civil War against Eastern intellectualism, big banks in NYC, and the ever out of touch Washington politician. Meanwhile new media were developing to record and preserve (and market) the culture of quite limited communities – think of the blues and early country recordings from various locales in the South. But also think of the Western films that memorialized the fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western historical experience. Finally (but only for now), think of how the influx of immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th centuries effectively redefined many of the cities of the Eastern seaboard (and, later, elsewhere as well). The 1926 might find one reading The New Yorker, but just as likely, given one’s heitage, Der Groyser Kundes.

In the ’60s, which saw television become our major media for information and politics, combined with the rapid increase in the number of colleges, all sharing a similar curriculum, and the ride of national political movements, Americans effectively deluded themselves into believing there was a national culture. That could not be sustained. The social consequences of the national political movements included much good, but also considerable fragmentation along regional, political, economic, ethnic lines, but also along lines of locally generated sub-cultures, some cultures of choice. Now when people refer to an ‘American culture,’ they are really only talking about the culture projected on television, since TV is the only source of information that most Americans share. Unfortunately, all TV seems to deliver is further delusion, much of its ‘information’ of questionable quality and uncertain factual basis.

The fragmentation is an on-going process – the tendency appears to be a function of Modernity, and we find it in play during the Reformation, as Protestant churches splintered off from each other due to (often violent) doctrinal disputes. This fragmentation is thus an on-going historical process; groups are formed in opposition to other groups, coming together over a perceived sharing of values, only for its members to discover that they do not share the same motivations, and are not unanimous in their interpretation of those values. The group’s discourse management strategies break down, boundaries get crossed, and group members break off to form new groups, and so on.

‘Well,’ the question may be asked, ‘why aren’t we simply a bunch of mutually suspicious, antagonistic tribes at this point?’ Well, maybe we are. However, we have, at crucial historical moments, developed bureaucratic institutions and organizations that suffer from considerable inertia; and these institutions and organizations are really what bind most of us together.

(For instance, I prefer Bernie, but I’ll probably have to vote for Hillary in November, because I share more values and interests with the Democratic organization than the Republican one, and the institution of the US government remains relatively stable, even though apparently incapable of needed reform. But hopefully it would prove resistant to Trumpian subversion as well, should the worst come to pass….)

I here think of the countless essays I have read over the past 45 years that have deployed phrases like ‘we need to,’ ‘we ought to,’ we really should,’ concerning hopes of political, social, or economic reform. Not a single one of those essays actually contributed to political, social, or economic change.

I think it was maybe the late ’90s, when I was reading an essay insisting that ‘we need to do (x).’ when I suddenly realized: ‘no, we don’t need to do anything – it might be good to do (x); but since we don’t need to do it, and most people seem not inclined to do it, well, so it goes.’

Around that time I had another unhappy insight, into the nature of ‘the crisis of contemporary capitalism.’ There is no crisis of contemporary capitalism. Workers get screwed, lose their jobs, suffer in poverty – and that’s exactly what is needed to keep capitalism working. So was the recession of ’08, and the lame attempts at amelioration. Unemployment is built into the system; poverty is built into the system; uncertainty is built into the system. Social injustice is part of the American economy. Some use race to leverage this injustice, some gender, some age, some class, some education – but some prejudice must be formed and deployed to leverage injustice in the system, because the injustice is a necessary function of the system. One can no more imagine a capitalist economy without social injustice than one can imagine a species of tree without bark.

That means that social injustice cannot be corrected by sweeping movements without actual revolution; it has to be corrected incrementally, on a case by case basis, even where the case involves collectives. John L. Lewis, when asked why he was not a communist, replied (paraphrasing from memory), ‘Communists want utopia; I just want to make things better.’

It is a core problem with so-called Social Justice Warriors, or scientisimists, or religious zealots, or the Tea Partiers, etc. – that they honestly believe that if we all just get together and get our heads right, the world will spin in the desired direction.

That’s not true, and it’s not how history happens.

Read instead Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” King uses “we must” phraseology in only one paragraph, and it is not a call to social change, but a moral directive to those who already agree with his basic project.

There’s no point in asking people to change. They have to want to change. Americans are unhappy; but they do not want to change. That’s the real problem here.

I’m not simply trying to say something about our economic system (although economic considerations underlie many of the issues here discussed). My point is that ‘what ails our discourse?’ is a question for those of us who believe that public discourse ‘ails’ – that the shared interchange of information and persuasion has developed obstacles to communication and shared agreements leading toward collective action. But I suggest that most people do not perceive any ailment here at all, and are not only content with the current universe of discourse, but actually find it socially useful in a number of ways (including economically).

Any time we are considering a seeming problem in a given society, it helps to ask three questions: 1. Do the people involved perceive a problem? 2. If they do, what are they willing to do about it? 3. If they don’t, or are not willing to do anything about it, then could this ‘problem’ actually be built into the social processes that keep the society functioning? In other words, a) it may not be causing anyone discomfort despite its inefficacy as a process, and b) even should it in some ways cause discomfort or even harm, it may be satisfying in other ways that keeps the given society functioning.

In short: on disinterested observation, it may appear to be a problem; but once all interests are taken into account, it may not be a real problem at all, or at least one that people are quite willing to live with.

Finally, I referenced Dr. King’s “I have a dream,” because that was a public address that really did contribute to a moment of social change. But how? At the time, everyone knew that change was in the wind – it had already begun with Brown v. Board of Education, and the Alabama marches, and it was not to be stopped. All King did was to provide it with a focus, a lightning rod of imagery expressing the fundamental hope that his audience held dear, while reminding those on the fence of the issue of the justice embedded in that hope. He doesn’t talk about what we should do – his audience already knows what they should do; he is telling us ‘now is the time to do it,’ and reminding us of the future it can lead us to.

In the condition of increasing fragmentation in 2016, it’s not clear that an address like King’s is possible or would have anything like the same effect. We do not know that change in a given direction is possible; we do not share the same hopes or dream the same future anymore. There is really no ‘we’ here to share this knowledge or these hopes. or take action based on these. Just a whole bunch of differing ‘us’ against ‘them’ tribes.

Unfortunately – most people, though they complain, seem quite willing to live with that.


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