Enacting Democracy

The recovery of reason, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, has implications that go well past the obvious. One of the examples that comes first to mind is also directly relevant to the theme of this series of posts, and it unfolds from an experience that many people have mentioned to me in recent years:  the inability of Americans with different beliefs to sit down and have a constructive conversation about their disagreements.

Those of my readers who have tried to do this any time recently, unless they were very lucky, will have found stalemate the all but inevitable outcome. Each side trots out its favorite talking points, most of them sound bites culled from popular media of one kind or another. When these fail to have the expected effect on the other side, both sides try again, with similar results, until finally one or both sides withdraw into frustration and hostility.

Though it’s unpopular these days to point this out, both sides in the current American culture wars follow this same wearily predictable pattern. Yes, I’m familiar with the recent flurry of liberal psychologists who insist that conservatives are just too irrational to accept what liberals see as self-evident truths; I don’t buy their claims, not least because I’ve watched liberals behave with exactly the same degree of illogic in parallel situations. The problem on both sides, as I see it, is the debasement of thinking discussed in last week’s post:  the malign transformation of our inner discourse into a set of arbitrary linkages between verbal noises and simple emotional reactions.  If a verbal noise produces warm fuzzy emotions in one person and cold prickly emotions in another, they are not going to be able to communicate unless both are able to get past that unthinking reaction—and getting past that unthinking reaction is something that very few Americans these days are able to do.

There’s another useful way to speak of the confusion of language in today’s America, and that’s to point out that nearly all our collective discourse has been reduced to phatic communication.  That seemingly exotic phrase describes a very familiar process:  the use of verbal noises to signal belonging and readiness for social interaction.  When two men sit down in a bar here in Cumberland, and one says to the other, “So, how about them Ravens?”—we’re halfway between Baltimore and Pittsburgh, so in football season it’s either that or “How about them Steelers?”—the question needn’t indicate any interest in the team in question.  Rather, it’s a formal way to acknowledge the other person’s presence and claim membership in a community.  In a different context, the question might be “Nice weather, isn’t it?” or some other equally vacant utterance. The form varies but the content—or more precisely the lack of content—remains identical.

Much of today’s political discourse serves exactly the same purpose: it signals readiness for social interaction and claims membership in a specific political subculture, and that’s basically all it does. The verbal noises that get used for phatic communication in that context vary even with fairly small shifts across the political landscape, but if you sit in on a discussion among people who more or less agree with each other’s politics, you can usually figure out pretty quickly what the relevant warm-fuzzy and cold-prickly phrases are, and once you’ve done that you can identify yourself either as a member of the community or as an outsider with a very few words.  It’s an experiment I recommend, partly for the entertainment value, and partly because there are few better ways to learn just how much of what passes for political thought these days is a set of essentially content-free signals meant to define the boundaries of a group.

It’s really quite remarkable to watch the range of things that get turned into phatic labels for political subcultures these days. Not long ago, for example, "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays" were equally content-free phatic utterances used from the middle of November to the end of the year across most of American society. These days, "Merry Christmas" has been turned into a phatic badge on the rightward end of the contemporary culture wars, and "Happy Holidays" is well on its way to becoming a phatic badge of equal force on the left.  Myself, I have no problem wishing my Christian neighbors a merry Christmas—that is what they’re celebrating, after all—and wishing a happy Hanukkah, a blessed solstice, or even a merry Krampustide to those who celebrate these other festivities; one of the benefits of being able to use language for purposes other than phatic communication is that, when a phatic noise is the right thing to use, you can choose your signals deliberately to get the results you want.

It thus probably needs to be said that there’s nothing wrong with phatic communication. Human beings are social primates, with the normal set of social primate instincts and reactions, and casual comments about football teams and the weather are no more objectionable in themselves than the grunts and postures baboons use to accomplish the same ends.  The problem here is simply a function of the fact that human language has functions other than phatic communication, and when those other functions are of crucial importance, staying stuck in phatic communication doesn’t help much.

There’s an old word, dialectic, that may be worth introducing here. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with Marxism; long before Hegel’s time, it was used for exactly the kind of communication that’s most lacking in American society these days, the kind in which two or more people sit down and say, in effect, “let us reason together.”  The ancient philosopher Plotinus described dialectic as the most precious part of philosophy, and the point’s a valid one; the ability to sit down with someone who disagrees with you about some important issue, discuss the matter, determine what common ground exists and where the differences of opinion lie, and either resolve the disagreement or sort out the questions of fact and value that have to be settled in order to resolve it, represents a high level of the practical wisdom that philosophy once upon a time was meant to cultivate.

Dialectic is a learned skill, and not a particularly difficult one, either.  Anyone who can tell the difference between a fact and an opinion, recognize a dozen or so of the standard logical fallacies, follow an argument step by step from its premises to its conclusion, and forbear from dragging the discussion down to the level of personal slurs, can pick it up promptly given a competent teacher and a little practice.  In the ancient world, dialectic was the way that philosophy was taught: a teacher would start a conversation with a couple of senior students on some specific theme, and go from there. If the dialogue that followed was any good, it wouldn’t simply rehash existing knowledge, but turn into an adventure of the mind that broke new ground; those of my readers who are familiar with the dialogues of Plato, which were meant to imitate dialectic at work, will have some sense of how this worked.

Pass beyond the circle of students around a teacher, and dialectic merges into rhetoric. That’s a word that gets plenty of use these days, nearly always with a heavy cargo of cold pricklies attached to it. Until quite recently, though, rhetoric was well understood as one of the essential skills of citizenship: the ability to stand up and explain, in clear, concise, and compelling language, what you think about a given issue. Of all the  skills of democracy, it’s hard to think of one more thoroughly misplaced than this one.  How many times, dear reader, have you heard people bemoaning the fact that people in America aren’t willing to listen to one another?  There’s a reason for that, though it’s not one you’re likely to hear; it’s that next to nobody in this country seems to be able to make a cogent, sensible comment on an issue—on any issue—and then sit down, shut up, and let somebody else take the floor.  It seems to have been completely forgotten nowadays that competent rhetoric makes the listener want to keep listening.

Rhetoric is another learned skill.  There are plenty of good textbooks on the subject, ranging from ancient Greek texts to online tutorials packed with the latest buzzwords, and there’s also a voluntary organization—Toastmasters International—that teaches rhetorical skills via a network of local clubs.  It’s not particularly difficult to learn, either. The great obstacle here is the terror of public speaking that’s efficiently instilled in American schoolchildren by the culture of bullying that pervades our public schools, and that can be outgrown; I had a world-class case of it not all that many years ago, for example. The benefits to learning it are not small, and are far from limited to its crucial role in fostering democracy, but we’ll stay focused on this latter for now.

When citizens can stand up in a meeting and present their points of view in concise, thoughtful, and convincing words, democracy becomes possible. When they can’t—when the only thing that takes place in a meeting is a collection of verbal noises denoting "warm fuzzy!" and "cold prickly!" to those others present who happen to link noises and emotions in the same way the speaker does—democracy is not an option, because it’s impossible to establish any shared basis for communication between those with different emotional reactions to any given set of verbal noises.  Transform those noises into words with mutually agreed meanings and you can get past that barrier, but transforming verbal noises into words with mutually agreed meanings is a skill very few Americans know any more.

The ability to converse in a reasoned and reasonable fashion, and the ability to present a viewpoint in a clear, cogent, and convincing manner, are thus among the core skills of democratic process that have been lost by contemporary American society and need to be recovered in a hurry.  Add these to the basic capacity to reason discussed in last week’s post, and you’ve got all the foundations for democratic process. You don’t yet have anything built on those foundations, but that’s the next step.  Democratic process itself comprises one more set of skills—the skills that allow a group of  people to meet together, discuss controversial issues, and agree on a collective response to them.

Those skills are not to be found in the so-called consensus methods that have kept activists on the Left spinning their wheels uselessly for three decades now.  I trust my readers remember the flood of self-congratulatory verbiage put forth by the Occupy movement in 2011; that movement vanished with scarcely a trace once the weather turned cold last year, and despite loud claims that it would pop back up again in the spring, it did no such thing.  There were a good many factors behind its failure, but among thwm was the manipulative behavior of activists who seized control of the movement using a supposedly egalitarian consensus system that placed all effective power, and a great deal of donated money, in their unelected and unsupervised hands. 

After months of circular debate that never quite managed to result in meaningful action, the vast majority of the protesters were convinced that their concerns would not be addressed and their efforts were wasted, and simply went home. This would be significant enough if it was new; in point of fact, it’s been the outcome of nearly every attempt at organized protest since the early 1980s, when the current suite of manipulative pseudoconsensus methods were adopted across most of the activist Left. If you want to know why the Left accomplished next to nothing for thirty years, while activists on the right were getting candidates into office and laws on the books, that’s an important part of the reason.

This is all the more embarrassing in that the toolkit of democratic process has been sitting on the shelf the whole time, waiting for somebody to notice that liberal and radical groups in the past used to use methods of organization that, however unfashionable they have become, actually work.  There are a lot of details, and entire books in fine print have been written on the minutiae, but the core elements of democratic process can be described in a paragraph. 

This is how it works.  Everyone has an equal voice and an equal vote, but the right to participate depends on willingness to follow the rules, and members can be ejected for abusive behavior; the chairperson of the meeting, and the handful of other people needed to make it work, are elected to be impartial referees of the process, and can be overruled or removed by vote if they abuse their positions; one person speaks at a time, and the chairperson determines who speaks next; an overly longwinded speaker can be told to shut up by the chairperson, or by vote of the members; once a vote takes place on any issue, the issue can’t be brought back up for debate again without a 2/3 majority, to keep a minority with an agenda from holding the meeting hostage; and the goal of the meeting, and of every part of the process, is to come to a decision, act on it, and get home at a reasonable hour. 

That’s democratic process.  It evolved organically over many centuries from its origins in the rough but functional practices of Anglo-Saxon tribal assemblies, and like other organic systems, it looks much sloppier but works much better than the idealized abstractions cooked up by radicals on either end of the spectrum. It’s easy to compare it unfavorably to one or another of those idealized abstractions, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating; those who want to demonstrate that some other system is as effective as democratic process are welcome to use that other system on smaller scales, with voluntary organizations and local communities, and prove that it works. That was, after all, how democratic process emerged as the default option in the Western world: in actual practice, in an assortment of voluntary organizations, local communities, political parties and protest groups, it proved to be more effective than the alternatives.

I should say, finally, that even the most lively revival of the core skills of democracy isn’t likely to affect the political sphere much for a couple of decades at least; if nothing else, the sheer inertia of a political dialogue debased as far as ours has been will take at least a generation to pass off. The point in reviving these things now is to lay foundations for the future.  Right now, in the fading years of the Age of Abundance, it’s fairly easy to learn the things I’ve discussed in last week’s and this week’s post; the intellectual resources needed for such a project can be found readily in libraries and on the internet, and a great many people have enough spare time to invest in such a project that much could be done.  The further we proceed into resource depletion, infrastructure breakdown, environmental instability, and the rest of the bubbling witch’s brew we’ve cooked up for ourselves in the cauldron of the near future, the less true that is likely to be. Thus any effort to make democratic process and the skills that make it possible available to the far future has to begin now, or soon.

It’s a good season to keep such logic in mind.  Those of my readers who have gardens, or are planning to plant one in the new year, will already be glancing through seed catalogs and roughing out, at least in the mind’s eye, what they will need for the spring planting.  In the same sense, though on a larger and more daunting scale, those of us who are watching the stormclouds of a greater winter gather on the horizon should be thinking about what seeds they intend to store for a more distant springtime. To my mind, at least, there is no greater challenge and no more important work to be done.

In the meantime, I wish each of you a blessed solstice, or whatever other festival your own faith or traditions assign to this time of year.  Next week, when winter is here and the partying is done, we’ll have a lot more to talk about.

End of the World of the Week #53

The last months of 1999, the subject of last week’s End of the World of the Week, were in many ways just a running start for one of the most wildly popular apocalyptic dates in history, the year 2000. An astonishing number of predictions of all kinds clustered around that impressively round number. For decades beforehand, in fact, the odds were pretty good that any projection of trends in the fairly near future would begin, “In the year 2000...”

Apocalyptic prophecies were among the many notions that clustered around that year, with the widely ballyhooed Y2K bug only the most heavily publicized among them. As far back as the 13th century, the Catholic theologian Peter Olivi predicted that the Second Coming would take place that year.  Isaac Newton made the same prediction in an early prophetic work, before settling on 2060 in his later writings.  Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards, author of the famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, tapped 2000 as the beginning of Christ’s millennial reign, as did Edgar Cayce and Sun Myung Moon.

Plenty of more exotic apocalypses were pinned on the same date. Popular psychic Ruth Montgomery proclaimed that the Earth would be knocked off its axis. Melody Mehta, a less widely known figure in the same business, insisted that a comet would knock Mars’ moon Phobos out of its orbit and send it careening into the Earth. On a less cosmic scale, financial writers Peter Jay and Michael Stewart predicted economic collapse and the rise of dictatorships in Europe and the US in a book somewhat unoriginally titled Apocalypse 2000. No matter what kind of apocalypse you were in the market for, 2000 had something on offer.

Except, of course, that none of them happened. In fact, the vast majority of all the predictions made for the year 2000, from the most exotic to the the most prosaic, landed with a thud.  The fact that so many predictions clustered around that date, it turned out, showed only that when people try to predict the future, some dates are more popular than others.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not