February 18, 2020

Is Discussion Actually Valuable?

“Is “discussion” really so wonderful? Does “communication” actually exist? What if I were to deny that it does?

The public discussion of exit from the European Union has already caused incalculable, probably irreversible and completely superfluous damage to Britain. Obviously, the “conditions of discussion” before the vote were not in any way “ideal.” There is no need to belabor that, but one should also recall that ten years ago no one, except a handful of fanatics, had any real interest in discussing relations with the EU; they were not on the table, and nothing was any the worse for that. It is only the discussion of the last four years, stoked by a few newspaper owners (many of them not domiciled in the U.K. at all), a small group of wealthy leftover Thatcherites and some opportunistic political chancers, that generated any interest in the subject at all. Dyed-in-the-wool Europhobes didn’t constitute more than 10 percent of the population. It was only the process of public discussion that permitted that hard-core to create conditions in which another 10 percent of the population articulated what was previously a merely latent mild discontent of the kind any population will be likely to have with any political regime, and express it as skepticism toward the Union. A number of further, highly contingent historical factors caused another 17 percent of the population to join the vote for Brexit. The most important of these factors was the ability of the Brexiteers to convince people (falsely) that harms they had in fact suffered at the hands of politicians in Westminster were actually the direct result of action by bureaucrats in Brussels. Structural features of the archaic and rather ridiculous first-past-the-post electoral system transformed the vote of 37 percent of the electorate into a politically effective, and constantly cited, 52 percent of votes cast (in one single election), and that has now been treated as the Irresistible Voice of the People for three years. The irony of the Conservative Party, which had spent two hundred years vociferously opposing this Rousseauist conception, now experiencing a sudden conversion to it, is clearly lost on Tory Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg. A strange sequence of accidents, including the inflexibility and monumental incompetence of the Prime Minister, has now created a situation in which 30 percent or 40 percent of the electorate really is anti-European, and no discussion, no matter how ideal the conditions under which it is conducted, can now in the short run change that. A person who has been brought, for whatever reason and by whatever means, to take a public position is for obvious psychological reasons not eager to admit to having made a mistake. Discussion is not neutral, but changes the situation. Once the government, whatever the rights and wrongs of the original decision, fails to act on it, that changes the situation again, and can generate additional resentment and turn the issue into an existential one. To use the current jargon, for many of those who voted for Brexit, it has become a matter of “identity.”

When I talk with Brexiteers, I certainly do not assume that what Habermas calls the “power of the better argument” will be irresistible. And I am certainly very far from assuming that an indefinite discussion conducted under ideal circumstances would eventually free them from the cognitive and moral distortions from which they suffer, and in the end lead to a consensus between them and me. What makes situations like this difficult is that arguments are relatively ineffectual against appeals to “identity.” In the nineteenth century Kierkegaard was very familiar with this phenomenon, and much of his philosophizing is devoted to trying to make sense of and come to terms with it. “We do not under any circumstances wish to be confused with Europeans because we have nothing but contempt for them.” What is one to say to that? Only real long-term sociopolitical transformations, impinging external events and well-focused, sustained political intervention have any chance of having an effect. In the long run, however, as Keynes so clearly put it, we are all dead.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Picks

"U.S. President Donald Trump thinks he’s suffered more injustice than the alleged witches of Salem, but it could be worse. Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharaff faced possible impeachment in 2008, leading to his resignation. In the end..."

"The 2000s felt like a decade of looking forward. Wi-Fi went mainstream, phones got smarter, social media connected us, digital tools let us rely less on physical ones. But the 2010s brought a shift. There was still tons of new technology, but..."

"While some women experience pregnancy and childbirth as joyful, natural and fulfilling, others find themselves recoiling in horror at the physical demands of carrying and sustaining a child in their womb, and even more so at the potential..."

"A few months ago, the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo bemoaned the death of the Manhattan power lunch. Gone were the long, decadent afternoons filled with networking and Negronis: “Suit-and-tie-wearing machers in media and Wall Street gave way to..."

"Economic inequality has moved to the top of the political agenda in many countries, including free-market poster children like the US and the UK. The issue is mobilizing the left and causing headaches on the right, where wealth has long been..."

"If you’re not familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats — or even if you are — then you probably have many, many questions going into the film adaptation this weekend, especially if you’ve witnessed the widespread bafflement the trailer..."

"Despite his precisely targeted campaign and some unexpected support, the chances of Gideon Saar engineering a surprise defeat of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Dec. 26 primaries for the Likud party leadership are still considered modest.."

"Peter Thiel is Big Tech’s most prominent Trump supporter. He is an unabashed enemy of the free press, having covertly funded a lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker three years ago. He has become one of the most vocal pro-monopoly advocates, taking a..."