Monday, March 22, 2010

The Failure of Discourse

I can hardly look at Facebook today. The passage of the health care bill has brought out the worst in us, both those in favor and those opposed. We are awash in words--bitter, angry, sarcastic words. We are only over/against the other. And because of this, we have the lost capacity to hear, to listen, to understand, and with this we have lost the capacity for discourse.

I am not naive about this. In a two-party system, the pressures on language are almost unavoidably negative. Both parties are locked in a language game which is aimed at getting things done. Jurgen Habermas calls this instrumental reasoning. It's a form of reason different than one designed to understand one another. For Habermas, instrumental reason too easily is objectifying, propagandist, and manipulative.

I'm not saying that people in politics are bad people. They aren't. And I'll give all of them a pass at the level of motives (this is naive, I know, but is part of what is required of me as one who follows a crucified God). But they are thrown into a system that forces them to play by a certain set of rules to get things done. They are beholden to principalities and powers that, for both good and bad, are a part of a representative democracy. (Twain's quip that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others comes to mind here. It was Twain, wasn't it?).

Habermas' hope for discourse lies in what he calls communicative reason--reason designed for understanding one another, not getting things done. And the place he hopes this will occur is in civil society--the public spaces in our society not governed primarily by the state or the economy.

One of my professors, Gary Simpson, sees the church as a public companion in the sphere of civil society. It is a place for the church to be public and moral without lapsing into the snares of partisanship. And part of its role in civil society is to keep the capacity for discourse alive through a posture of openness to the other--a mark of the Trinitarian life of God. I like this understanding of the church and think it corresponds to biblical understandings.

It is striking to me how often Scripture associates righteousness with speech ethics. Evildoers' throats are open graves, according to the Psalms. The righteous, in contrast, have the fruit of praise continually on their lips. And this goes beyond, for me, singing praise songs. This is about refusal of gossip, slander, slurs. Praiseworthy speech is for building up, not tearing down. One of the capacities Christians ought to be able to offer to the world is the ability to keep discourse alive, to stay in conversation without impugning motives or resorting to ad hominem attacks. To disagree without demonizing through sarcasm, sloganeering, etc.

(As an aside, read 2 Cor and notice how often Paul's experience of the death and resurrection is subsequently embodied in the way he speaks--openness, frankness, godly sincerity, not peddler's of God's word, etc).

I am convinced that without this capacity, we lack the ability to discern what it is that God might be up to in the world, and we certainly lose the capacity to say anything meaningful that might pass as "good news." Speech designed to accomplish things forecloses on other possibilities. Discourse designed to understand remains open as long as possible. And gospel as speech category is an open category, designed to open the world to the continuing voice of God. Speech ethics are crucial for this kind of openness.

Facebook is a place within civil society. I am not an idealist like Habermas. I don't think there's a societal "place" where we can retreat from the effects of state or economy, where our speech can be totally free from instrumental concerns. This week, Facebook suggests that instrumental reason trumps communicative even in forums like this, and that Christians are as implicated by this as anyone.

But I hope for more. I do think its possible for the goal of speech in forums like these to be understanding and not convincing. My sense is that people move most when they feel understood, not because they find a particular argument compelling, and certainly not because they've been subjected to fear, sarcasm, gloating, etc.


Anonymous said...

thanks, Mark.

Brooks Inc. said...

Mark- came to you rblog from a link Sean Palmer posted on facebook...what a blessing. Thanks for sharing your heart...It helped me get some much needed perspective today...


qb said...

Of course, this post - whatever its many merits might otherwise be - is expressly a post intended to persuade, that is, to accomplish a change in heart and behavior among those who read it.

In that sense, the sentiments are self-contradictory.

"I urge you, therefore, be ye reconciled to God" - is anything but "communicative." Speech cannot be utterly open-ended without disintegrating into egalitarian mush. Some ideas and some ways of thinking are simply better than others, and mushy thinking has to be exposed for what it is. Paul certainly thought so...qb

Mark Love said...


Ah, dang it. Hate when that happens!

Of course all speech is interested and actually does something. I needed to make my differences with Habermas more plain. I don't believe in an ideal speech situation.

But if you put Habermas' categories on a continuum, I think its possible for us to distinguish speech designed more for understanding and uses of language designed more to get bills passed or cars sold or a legal position protected. Maybe instrumental and communicative are poor ways to express that, but they are what came to mind as I reflected on facebook this morning.

I would say though that Habermas is interested in the relative merits of arguments (as am I). This is particularly strong in Habermas (he is trying to hold on to truth over against what he views as the relativism of hermeneutical philosophy) and this is why he uses the word "reason" in relation to the qualifier "communicative." People do make choices related to the merits of statements vis-a-vis others. This is not an appeal to a mushy egalitarianism. Just the opposite. For Habermas, communicative reason is far more likely to produce the better argument and better judgments.

So, by open (my word), I don't mean without content, not open-ended in that sense. I mean that some discourse is hospitable.

Thanks for allowing me to clarify.

Daniel Gray said...

Mark, excellent thoughts. I came via Richard Beck's blog.

I had not thought about the importance of speech as an important mark of believers. Having grown up in a homogenous community (church, school) speech never seemed to be a big problem. But seeing facebook and political broadcasting, your post reminds me that it is a very serious problem.

I think one reason that facebook is a problem, is we tend to be broadcasting rather than communicating. When I post something on facebook, it is often not directed towards someone. When I'm having a face to face conversation, I'm slightly more likely to be openly communicating. Although, we tend to segregate ourselves with like-minded people, so it is still a problem.

Betsy said...

As I have been reflecting on some of the same ideas you expressed here, a co-worker of mine recommended I come to your blog.

I appreciate your thoughts and also appreciate the great grace with which you clarified your intentions and engaged someone who disagreed with you.

I appreciate your thoughtfulness in the words you chose to communicate how you were feeling and I am grateful for someone who is able to put so eloquently what I have been feeling over the past couple of days.


Mark Love said...

Daniel, Becky and Betsey

Thanks for the encouragement. I'm glad you are part of the conversation.


Unknown said...

Great post Mark. The problem with real discourse is that it takes time, and who has time any more. Its far easier to reduce ideas down to propositions and communication to soundbites, or status updates.

Because you asked, it was Churchill that made the democracy quote. He also said "the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter." We might say today, watching cable news networks for two minutes. I hesitate to offer the correction because I've never met anyone who has such a command of his references as you.

Mark Love said...

Churchill, Twain, peas in a pod. And I might be a good bluffer.