Category Archives: deliberation

how political talk relates to its context

— Please don’t talk that way in school.

— It’s a free country; I can say what I want.

Both of these speakers describe the context in which they’re speaking in order to support their goals or values. Even if they’re in the same place, both could be making valid points, because we can operate within several contexts at once. For instance, a classroom can be located within the United States.

These speakers are not completely free to describe their contexts as they wish. Unless the first speaker is actually located inside a school in which certain norms are commonly observed, that statement is odd–perhaps a joke or an idiosyncratic remark rather than an effective intervention. The first statement assumes a real, bricks-and-mortar building that has prevalent norms.

However, these statements are not completely determined by their objective context. They reflect choices: speakers can select which contexts to highlight and can identify preferred features of the contexts.

If many speakers make the same choices, they can influence the context. For instance, if teachers consistently say, “You can’t curse here,” the school may become a place where public cursing is rare. Teachers could decide to begin or to stop describing the school’s norms in that way. They are more influential than their students; as in most cases, power in unequally distributed. However, we only get the speech-context we want to the extent that the norms we advocate are actually observed. If teachers say, “We don’t talk that way here,” but everyone does anyway, they will begin to look foolish. In that sense, everyone influences the context, albeit to unequal degrees.

We can sometimes even use speech to create the context for speech, as in performative utterances like these:

— I call the meeting to order.

— Let us bow our heads in prayer.

(The second statement might change a secular gathering into a spiritual one for a time.)

I’ve recently learned that John J. Gumperz (1922-2013), a founder of interactional sociolinguistics, pioneered the idea that language has a dynamic, two-way interaction with social contexts. I look forward to learning more, especially about the political implications.

After all politics requires good conversation. The definition of good political talk is itself a matter of debate. Who must be included in each discussion? Must the discourse be civil? Must it be public-spirited? Must it aim at consensus? Must it be secular? What counts as appropriate evidence for empirical claims? Which emotions are valuable and when?

Contexts influence what forms of speech actually occur and prove effective. Political speech uttered in a church during a faith-based social movement will inevitably be different from political speech uttered in a faculty meeting, a union hall, or a courtroom. I am skeptical that we need just one type of speech. Pluralism is good.

Speech contexts are shaped by:

  1. The implicit norms reflected in typical speech within each context. For example, if it is common to criticize other participants by name, then that is the norm.
  2. Explicit characterizations of the context. “You really shouldn’t keep citing scripture here–most of us are not Christian” would be such a move. It describes the local norm as secular, and if people accept this description, it may affect their speech.
  3. Other aspects of the institution: Who is permitted and/or recruited to participate? What behavior is rewarded? Who makes key decisions? Even literal architecture may matter. For instance, a bricks-and-mortar school probably consists of many rooms that are designed to hold one adult with 15-30 children or youth. Discourse would be different in a stadium, a prison, or along a forest trail.

We should envision speakers as operating in contexts that they may or may not endorse. At one level, they make ordinary points about what they believe or advocate. How they talk either conforms to the norms of the speech-context or violates them to some degree. Widespread violation can change the norms.

At another level, individuals may seek to change the speech-context, either by moving to another context (exit) or by seeking to alter its norms (voice). They can use their voice to advocate directly for different speech-norms, as in statements like, “Everyone is being too politically correct here–we must tolerate uncomfortable opinions.” Or they may use their voice to support changes in the institution that would likely change the norms. For instance, changing the demographic composition of a school or the balance of power between teachers and students might change the frequency of various forms of discourse in the school.

Discourse ethics is then not exhausted by the question: What kind of arguments should individuals make about policies and issues? It also encompasses questions about how to design, create, choose, and influence the contexts of speech, both directly and indirectly.

This is a mild critique of the idea that one kind of speech is desirable in a liberal democracy and that institutions should enact rights, rules, and procedures that encourage such speech. Instead, I am suggesting that people are embedded in diverse speech-contexts, which they also influence; such pluralism is desirable as well as inevitable; and people need ethical forms of voice and exit that they can use to affect their various speech-contexts.

See also: what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech; this is what deliberative democracy looks like; modus vivendi theory; and judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view.

why express a dissent?

One of the things people do in meetings and other discussions is to express dissenting opinions even though they know they will not be persuasive. They say some version of, “For the record, I think …”

For the purpose of this post, I’ll exclude situations in which these statements are really meant for an external audience, such as the broader public or future members of the same group. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes once wrote that a judicial dissent is “an appeal … to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed.” Here I will focus on statements that are only heard by the rest of the group in real time, when there is no chance of persuading the others–for instance, after the decision has been made.

As it happens, I almost never make such statements. Perhaps because of the privileged or comfortable role I usually play in discussions, I usually feel it would be unhelpful to express dissents unless I can persuade. Otherwise, I keep any concerns to myself. And I think that is right.

However, I would sometimes defend the expression of dissent even when it’s not pragmatically effective–even when it cannot change opinions. I think it navigates usefully among the three options that Albert O. Hirschman identified for people who disagree with a group to which they belong: “exit,” “voice,” or “loyalty.

In Hirschman’s great book, “exit” means leaving the group or the institution, thus preserving your freedom and possibly disciplining the group by removing your contributions to it. “Voice” means trying to persuade the group to change. And “loyalty” means going along with the group because it has sufficient value to you.

To express a dissent is a little different from all three. It’s a version of loyalty, but with a dollop of resistance. It’s a use of one’s voice, but not “voice” in the sense of attempting to persuade. And it involves exiting–not from the group, but from the decision.

I would compare what Tommie Shelby has called “impure dissent.” He interprets rap artists who write intentionally offensive lyrics (including violent and misogynistic ideas) as saying: I do not endorse the racist society that I must belong to. I have no hope for revolutionary change. I cannot exit. My voice will not persuade white people (or perhaps anyone) to reform this society. I am going to do what the system allows, such as selling my music for money. Yet my lyrics express my dissent. They express that I do not endorse what I am part of.

Shelby contrasts “voice as influence, which is aimed at altering the status quo, with voice as symbolic expression, which is not primarily concerned with its impact on those in power.” For him, objective injustice provides an ethical justification for the symbolic expression in rap. Rappers’ impure dissent is justified because they are oppressed.

I agree with his argument and would generalize it to some people who are not oppressed. Expressing symbolic dissent without exiting may be appropriate for anyone who is simply outvoted. Of course, you can do this in a polite way if you are not oppressed. You can avoid burning bridges. In essence, you are making a contribution to the group by not leaving it, but you are asking for that contribution to be recognized. And you are retaining self-respect by clarifying that your will is not reflected in this particular collective decision.

To do this too much or too easily can be self-indulgent and can put unreasonable burdens on the group. But sometimes symbolic dissent enriches the group by clarifying that its members are demonstrating loyalty despite disagreements, by setting a precedent for other people to disagree and differ, or by simply informing everyone that some members are unhappy.

More generally, I believe that we do many productive and appropriate things when we talk in groups, and making proposals with reasons is only one of those things. Many of our speech-acts are ways of keeping the group together so that it has enough social capital to act, thereby making the discussion worthwhile in the first place. I would classify symbolic dissent as one kind of speech that may–when used appropriately–contribute to the maintenance of a group that can then do what its members decide.

See also: do we deliberate to reach consensus? (with an example from Italian fascism); du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; and the question of sacrifice in politics

do we deliberate to reach consensus? (with an example from Italian fascism)

I got a question recently about whether the purpose of deliberating is to reach consensus. (Here we can define a “deliberation” as any conversation that is at least partly about what the group should do and why.) A related question is whether making a proposal or a claim in such a discussion is tantamount to requesting consensus. One view is that consensus-seeking speech is desirable because it forces us to give good reasons that are acceptable to all.

I think that people do a range of things in deliberative conversations, and all of the following can be appropriate:

  1. Seeking the other participants’ sincere agreement about both reasons and conclusions. (This is seeking consensus)
  2. Signaling one’s own goals and hearing other people’s goals in order to ascertain what might work for a negotiated settlement or modus vivendi.
  3. Using speech to build positive emotions and group ties so that members come to value the maintenance and the harmony of the group, thus modifying their goals. This is one purpose of light humor, exchanges of news, expressions of concern, etc.
  4. Ascertaining what each individual is renouncing in order to go along with the group and acknowledging those sacrifices.
  5. Making commitments.
  6. Giving reasons or challenging other people’s reasons with the intention of expressing and recording important points, without really expecting them to change the outcome. (“Just for the record, I want to note …”)

People also do these things:

  1. Misleading people or tricking them into adopting conclusions that they wouldn’t accept if they could think more clearly.
  2. Maintaining a group’s orthodoxy and marginalizing ideas that might upset it.
  3. Using a superior bargaining position (e.g., more-than-average wealth, or the ability to withdraw a valuable resource) to get what they want.
  4. Using time for tactical purposes. This can mean filibustering (using up time because they are satisfied with the status quo) or ending the discussion because they fear it will go the wrong way.
  5. Agreeing with other people out of insecurity, subservience, passive-aggressiveness, etc.
  6. Demonstrating loyalty or partiality toward specific individuals in the group by agreeing with what they say or would say.
  7. Asserting dominance, threatening, bullying, settling scores, targeting people to be excluded
  8. Enjoying listening to themselves speak.

On the whole, and with some exceptions, the acts on the first list are good and the ones on the second list are bad. However, assessment requires knowing more about the composition and purpose of the group. A fascist council could deliberate, whereas a benign group could display some of the less-valuable forms of discourse.

In fact, consider these excerpts from a Wikipedia entry. In square brackets, I have put references to the list above. I have added negative numbers where the text suggests that the particular form of discourse was excluded.

At 17:00 on 24 July 1943, the 28 members of the Grand Council [of Fascism] met in the parrot room (the anteroom of the globe saloon, the office of Mussolini) in Palazzo Venezia.

For the first time in the history of the Grand Council, neither the bodyguard of Mussolini, known as the Duce’s musketeers, nor a detachment of the “M” battalions were present in the Renaissance palace. [- 13] …Grandi brought two hidden Breda hand grenades with him, in addition to revising his will and going to confession before the meeting, because he was under the impression that he may not leave the palace alive. [-11]

Mussolini began the meeting by summarizing the history of the supreme command, trying to show that the attribution to him had been sponsored by Badoglio. He summarized the war events in the previous months, saying that he was ready to move the government to the Po valley. He concluded by asking the participants to give their personal opinion about what he called “il dilemma”: the choice between war or peace [1]. The Duce knew that, except for the three or four men against him, the “swamp” was undecided. He hoped that he could convince them to vote for [resolution] which gave only the military powers back to the King. …[1]

[After various speeches,] Farinacci said that in order to win the war it was necessary to wipe out the democrats and liberals still nested in the Party, as well as the generals. He wanted to give the supreme command of the armed forces back to the King and unify the war direction with Germany, all of which would strengthen the Party [1]. After some minor interventions, Bottai, the Fascist intellectual, made a purely political speech defending the [resolution] [14] …

At 23:30, the Duce announced that, due to the length of the meeting, some comrades had asked for a postponement to the next day [10]. At this point, Grandi called for a vote on his [resolution], saying that it was shameful to go to sleep when Italian soldiers were dying for their fatherland [10].

Never before in the 20-year history of the assembly had anyone asked for a vote. Since fascism was strongly anti-parliamentary, in all previous meetings only discussions summarized by the Duce had taken place [-2]. Mussolini unwillingly agreed, and at midnight the meeting was suspended for 10 minutes [10]. In the meantime, Grandi collected the signatures to his [resolution].

After other interventions for and against the [resolution], Mussolini told the participants to reflect on their decision since the approval of Grandi’s [resolution] would imply the end of Fascism [3 and/or 8]. … He said this was not about him, but he was sure that the war could be won [1]. …

Grandi said that the Duce was blackmailing all of them, and if one must choose between fidelity to him and loyalty to the homeland, the choice was clear [1, -12].

At this point, Scorza caught everyone by surprise by presenting his own [resolution]. This proposed the nomination of the three war and interior ministers, all under Mussolini, and the concentration of power in the hands of the Fascist Party [11, 13]. His speech hurt the Duce’s hopes of defeating Grandi since the Party was discredited among almost all the high-ranking Fascists. …

After other interventions and nine hours of discussion, Mussolini declared the meeting closed at two o’clock in the morning and ordered Scorza to proceed with the vote. [10] … In the end, … Grandi obtained 19 votes for [his view], with 8 against. Mussolini declared the document approved and asked who should bring the result to the King. Grandi answered: “You”. The Duce concluded: “You provoked the regime crisis”. After that, Scorza tried to call the “saluto al duce“, but Mussolini stopped him [11]. …

After that, before reaching his wife in Villa Torlonia, Mussolini telephoned his mistress, Claretta Petacci. During his conversation, which was bugged, he told her in desperation: “We arrived to the epilogue, the greatest watershed in history”; “The star darkened”; “It’s all over now.”

These people were thugs and warmongers. They deserved the grisly ends that several of them soon met. Nevertheless, they displayed a characteristic mix of communicative actions while making a collective decision. Some of their moves–such as trying to resist a vote in the name of unity–are especially common in benign groups.

The bottom line is that we do many things with words while we are trying to make decisions. There is value in assessing speech-acts generically, but a great deal depends on the overall purpose and composition of the group.

[Other posts on deliberation are here.]

this is what deliberative democracy looks like

We are having a passionate, complex, deeply informed discussion about race in America and related topics, such as policing.

If you believe that a deliberative democracy means one conversation that convenes representatives of all perspectives, who decide, without rancor and recrimination, what they should do next as a unified group, then the current discussion misses the standard. But I never had that ideal in mind. I always assumed that a national deliberation would result from demands and critiques and would unfold in many settings. I always assumed it would be impassioned and challenging.

In the current debate, some prominent people can be interpreted as wanting to silence their opponents. When Barack Obama called “defund the police” a “snappy slogan” that “lost a big audience,” that sounded like advice to drop the slogan. On the other hand, to equate opposition to defunding police with white supremacy could also be interpreted as silencing.

These statements do not worry me much, because they will not actually silence anyone. They are acts of free speech, not restrictions on it. And, by the way, they are probably both true. If we defeated white supremacy, we would not have to consider defunding police. Yet defunding police polls badly among constituencies that should matter, like Black people in the Twin Cities:

Although Barack Obama may not be the best messenger for a certain kind of pragmatic meliorism, telling him not to say what he thinks is just as silencing as his own statement might be. The conversation should continue–and it will. It’s not really in danger of being suppressed by anyone.

Concerns about polarization and echo chambers are valid. When people talk only to others who agree, they can fail to learn, they may weaken their own influence, and they can encourage the spread of false information. However, we wouldn’t want to go too far in the opposite direction. If everyone (or a representative sample of everyone) is involved in the same discussion, then it will have a white, suburban plurality and it will marginalize ostensibly radical ideas, like defunding the police. The conversation is richer if it unfolds in many different settings with different majorities.

If you want to make policing more equitable in the short term, then you are probably better off advocating police accountability plus social services, not defunding cops. But not everyone should promote short-term ameliorative solutions. Some people should pose more fundamental questions, like “Do we need police at all?” Note, however, that if you pose this question, you should expect to hear the answer “Yes, we do” from a lot of people, not just conservative whites. And if Barack Obama tells you that the slogan polls badly–well, surely he’s entitled to that view.

Deliberative democracy was never supposed to be cool and calm, and if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. My only desire would be for more prominent presentations of more concrete and compelling alternatives. How would a safe community without any police actually work? On the other hand, how does an accountable and equitable police force function?

It might feel like a burden to have to spell out alternatives–with tradeoffs, costs, enforcement mechanisms, and contingency plans–but that’s what self-governing people do. The great Ernesto Cortés, Jr. says:

Most people have an intuitive grasp of Lord Acton’s dictum about the tendency of power to corrupt. To avoid appearing corrupted, they shy away from power. But powerlessness also corrupts — perhaps more pervasively than power itself. So IAF leaders learn quickly that understanding politics requires understanding power.

I wonder whether some of the strongest proponents of abolishing the police are actually pessimistic about that ever happening. They may endorse the syllogism: All racist societies have unjust police; America is a racist society; therefore, America police will (always) be unjust. This logic is fundamentally disempowered. If you think that you don’t have to show what a police-free community would look like, then you are acting powerless in a corrupting way. In fact, everyone has the power to envision and present alternatives.

I have been advocating what I call the SPUD framework for assessing movements. In this framework, “S” stands for scale: movements should strive to recruit large numbers of individuals and groups, because they have more power if they are large. “P” stands for pluralism: movements are more effective and learn and react better if they encompass people with diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and social roles. “U” stands for unity: movements must come together behind shared demands at any given time, or else they can’t make effective demands. And “D” stands for depth: movements must help their participants to grow in knowledge, skill, experience, and wisdom.

The Movement for Black Lives has achieved almost unprecedented scale. It also demonstrates impressive depth, at least among its core members. Like all movements, it is pulled between pluralism and unity, and that tension can be fruitful. It would be a mistake to move all the way to the unity pole by excluding a robust and diverse debate about matters like criminal justice. Yet it makes sense to try to project unity and even to try to marginalize certain positions that would undermine the movement’s unity. People are always free to exit if they don’t like the mainstream of a movement; large numbers of exits serve as a form of regulation. Meanwhile, the society as a whole needs an even larger and more plural discussion of the same topics, enriched by more than one social movement.

And all of that is more or less what we are seeing. I take a generally positive view of the present debate as an example of deliberative democracy, even though, like everything human beings do, it leaves room for improvement.

See also: some remarks on Elinor Ostrom and police reform; on the phrase: Abolish the police!; “The Role of Social Movements in Fostering Sounder Public Judgment,” and “Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism

empathy boosts polarization

In a new article,* Elizabeth Simas, Scott Clifford, and Justin Kirkland provide evidence that empathy is not a solution to partisan polarization in the US. Quite the contrary: people who demonstrate more “empathic concern” are more likely to blame the opposite party for the suffering that they see in the world, hence more likely to decry the other party, to favor censoring it, and to exhibit Schadenfreude (pleasure at others’ pain) when members of the opposing party lose out.

Part of the article involves an experiment with undergraduate subjects. Students are shown a story in which “campus police had to shut down a group of partisan students who were protesting a speech to be given by an individual known for making inflammatory comments about that party. In both versions, a bystander who was attempting to hear the speech was struck by a protestor. And in both versions, the protestors succeeded in getting the speech canceled.” Students were assigned to see versions of the story that randomly varied the partisan identities of the speaker, the protesters, and the bystander.

Students who scored higher on a general measure of empathetic concern were more likely to favor censoring the inflammatory speaker, and more likely to be glad that the bystander was hurt. These results were the same for Democratic and Republican students.

It rings true for me that deep emotional concern is associated with anger and a distancing of intellectual and political opponents, a refusal to hear their arguments.

I’ve posted concerns about empathy several times before.** The main problem is its susceptibility to bias. Usually, empathy is felt for individuals (or concrete categories of people), and it can easily promote injustice against others. There is such a thing as universal, undifferentiated empathy, but it looks more like an ethical principle than a concrete emotion. The Buddhist objective is not empathy (as measured by questions from the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, such as: “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective toward them”). Instead, Buddhism prizes equanimity, which is calm and detached.

I do not take for granted that political polarization is bad. Sometimes it is right to blame political opponents for others’ suffering. And although Schadenfreude should always be avoided, it can be welcome news when a political enemy suffers defeat. These emotions of blame and satisfaction are appropriate if and when the opponent is actually at fault. To find out whether someone is actually wrong requires engagement with that person’s arguments and reasons. Censorship defeats such engagement and is almost always a mistake. It’s troubling that more empathy means more support for censorship, especially if that exemplifies a deeper problem with empathy. Perhaps empathy discourages us from hearing alternative views by fixing our attention on concrete suffering.

*Simas, Elizabeth N., Scott Clifford, and Justin H. Kirkland. “How Empathic Concern Fuels Political Polarization.” American Political Science Review 114.1 (2020): 258-269.

** Civility, humility, tolerance, empathy, or what?; Empathy and Justice; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy: good or bad?; empathy versus systematic thought