On Political Discourse…

Recently, I engaged in a discussion (one might say, argument) with a friend about the current state of popular discourse (Hey! That’s the name of this site!). Due to its obvious relationship to the title of this blog and because the discussion was interesting enough to be blog worthy, I decided to reproduce it in a post. The exchange has been lightly edited for clarity and whatnot.

So, my friend starts out by lamenting a perceived decline in and opposition to public political discussion that he alleges is taking place, and aims to explain what caused the phenomenon. He writes:

“The criticism against, and waning tendency of, writing (substantive) political Facebook statuses is a compelling example of the strength of Arendt’s thesis with regards to the idea of modern man as principally a “laboring animal.”

Particularly among college kids at elite institutions, there is a pathological insistence that their daily lives and social projects being necessarily productive. (Which is to say, having some kind of *use-value: college resumé, academic performance, campus credibility). So as a consequence, then, we’ve seen a movement against engaging in substantive political discourse on social media Indeed, most online debates are quite unproductive (in that they don’t ~produce~ some kind of good other than genuine human contact and the use of our logos).

Thus, we, as strong aspirants of the meritocracy, think that our intellectual faculties and capacity for language ought to be dedicated to more pragmatic ends: writing cover letters, sending out large swaths of emails to every conceivable PE group, think tank, and opportunity factory in the world.

In a truly political sphere, the use of language (and discourse) is an End in and of itself because it helps us engage with each other. At the point where that principle is no longer operative, at the point where we can’t just write Facebook statuses because they interest us as such, sharing our viewpoint, how can we actually do politics again?”

It’s particularly interesting to note the allusion to  “use-value”, which is a central component of Marx’s critique of political economy, and indeed, it appears that my friend was advancing a sort of Western-Marxist critique of modern society. As he later writes:

I think Lefebvre has a lot to say about the collision between market economy and ordinary social relationships. And how capitalism has to justify itself even in the parts of our lives that, until modernity, has avoided the problem of labor.

It’s, in many ways, a classic leftist critique of modernity.  Instead of engaging in political discussion as a natural function of human behavior, the “demands of modern and, importantly, capitalist society (evidenced by the allusion to use value) pushes us to do “productive” tasks like academic performance and resumé writing in lieu of unproductive tasks like political discussion for its own sake. These “productive” tasks either crowd out unproductive tasks or the general ideology of capitalist instrumentalism discourages participation in ‘unproductive activities.’ (I likely butchered the theory, but the general argument is summarized there.)

However, I think this argument is wrong on numerous grounds.

Firstly, I don’t think there ever was a point in time where there was widespread discussion of politics for the sake of politics to the degree alluded to. I do not believe there has never been a time where the populace at large engaged in intellectual political discussion for the sake of that discussion. We can romanticize a pursuit for politics for its own sake, but insofar as it has been realized in a robust manner, it is hard to turn this into a criticism of capitalism qua ideology. Even at the height of Enlightenment salon culture, discussion only occurred between intellectual and cultural elite. During the era of Athenian/Macedonian hegemony, the romanticized description of  political discussion of the Greeks strikes me as ahistorical, and, in actuality, reserved to the elite in society.

However, amongst college students and those interested in intellectual inquiry there is constant discussion of politics, as is wont to occur in collegiate settings. So let us consider this argument in the context of this very specific subset of individuals. Has political discussion truly declined amongst our generation? I would first note that I’ve never seen more interest in politics and political discussion until now. Additionally, I challenge that interest in political discussion has meaningfully declined. Though anecdotal, I’ve never seen a point in time in which public discourse about politics (measured in Facebook posts and general remarks) has been so widespread. During the healthcare debate, everyone added their 2 cents, and Trump’s presidency has provoked more political discussions than I could count.

But I am sympathetic to the related claim that people are beginning to tire of political discussion, or that, at the very least, politician discussion could be less robust than it could have been in the counterfactual.

As a side note: I don’t think that this shift away from political discussion for the sake of political discussion is caused by a focus on “productive activities” qua economic production. The two are not mutually exclusive, really, and the vast majority of individuals that I know, aren’t spending the time that could be spent in the noble employ of discourse (as you describe it) on these “productive activities.” I would instead suggest that they are spending their time in dramatically unproductive ways. And it is undeniable that procrastination is rampant.

Regardless, to return to the idea that people are tiring of political discourse. If the cause is not the pursuit of productive activities that in turn crowds out opportunities for discussion, it could be the second causal mechanism: that since we’ve deemed these activities unproductive, we eschew them. But I think that’s wrong as well. You specify how “unproductive” discussion deters people from discussion. Political discussion does not change hears and minds and is not instrumental in reaching some sort of consensus on “the truth”, so we reject it. Yet, my friend conflates “productivity” in this case with use-value. If the argument is that discourse has declined because people do not find it productive, and you mistake what people mean by productivity in this regard. It is not that individuals lament that discussion does not produce some economic value but that it is generally unfulfilling and toxic. Perhaps though, one might point out that it is disappointing that we *must* justify discourse as producing some good, economic or otherwise. An argument might be that a cultural obsession with justifying everything according to some “rational” or consequentialist standard devalues activities like discourse which should instead be seen as a natural human activity. In later comments, my friend advances that engaging with eachother through political discussion should be an inherently-fulfilling enterprise. Yet, in the status quo, political discussion is seen as productive even if it does not prove instrumental towards acquiring some specific ends unrelated to engagement for the sake of engagement. Hostile discussion of emotionally loaded issues is psychologically draining and exhausting; instead of helping us to engage with each-other better and understand each-other, we engage with eachother worse. Instead of bridging social divisions , discourse worsens them. Instead of broadening our own horizons and making our thinking more rich, they are deleterious to our political thought prompting us to label potentially legitimate alternative views as antagonistic.

Lastly, as a general note of discussion, I think Richard Rorty and Alistair McIntyre are much more useful in talking about than Lefebvre or the Marxist tradition he represents for that matter. I don’t generally buy that we engage in an instrumentalist analysis (explicitly or implicitly) of political discussion, or even one that privileges economic goods above all else. Its inconsistent with the way I experience thinking about discussion and the behavior of others. While we often might put off discussion if we have a lot of work to do, with the remark, “I can’t, I have to do x, y, or z,” discussion is not consciously entered into amongst participants after reasoned analysis, it usually arises through exogenous provocation, a reaction to the days affairs provoked by a preexisting desire to talk about the topic at hand. Rather, I think Rorty and McIntyre’s related accounts of what has gone wrong with political discussion provides a better perspective. As I understand, they claim that as creatures/products of the enlightenment, we have been trained to accept that there are right answers to all of our political questions, and that political debate can be resolved one way or another. When we are unable to do so, we enter this deeply unsatisfying emotivist world in which we simply address arguments to each other that express our subjective beliefs, rather than making claims as to an objective truth applicable to all. This leads to a nihilistic outlook and general meaninglessness. While I won’t go as far to endorse their explanation of why this occurs (they believe that settling these debates satisfactorily is impossible because foundationalism is impossible). It is true, I believe, that we have certain expectations about arguments and discussion in society (most importantly, that disagreement will and can be resolved), and when those expectations are not fulfilled (for any reason, for example due to cognitive bias), it makes us deeply unsatisfied. Nevertheless, I think this only goes so far in explaining why we have political discussion. As noted previously, I believe discussion can be meaningful to us even if we don’t reach some sort of “truth” or consensus, so this is only part of the story, at most.



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