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Created: February, 2002
Latest Update: February 25, 2002

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The Trouble with Discourse

Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individaul Authors, February 2002.
"Fair use" encouraged.

This essay is based on a couple of posts on PSN on Tuesday, February 26, 2002.

It's hard to stay on target with a reasoned argument. Lawyers get three years of training, and still don't do it much better than ordinary folks, although they call it legal reasoning and claim to have been blessed with it. The problem, of course, is adversarialism. Our social context tells us there's a winner and a loser in every confrontation. So we look for "the winner" and "the loser," and sure enough, we find them. In methodology we would call that observer bias. We use methodologies like grounded theory to try reflexively to get around our biases, at least, some of us do. But humans can't shake their social structure like molting skins. We develop interdependently with that social structure, and it is part of us, like it or no. (This assumes a social constructivist position. Did you pick that up? So I could be wrong, if you don't believe in social constructivism. Be sure you don't let someone slip in a theoretical bias as though it were fact.)

When we enter public discourse, we don't shed those social constructivist skins either. But I, like Lauren Langman, think that Habermas has a tad too much faith in reasoned discourse. At least, I think Lauren said that in the recent thread on Habermas. I don't claim any special knowledge or understanding of reasoned discourse, but I can't miss the affect in the recent PSN discussion on debating the war:

On Tuesday, February 26, 2002, Dick Platkin wrote: Subject: Debating the war

In terms of a string of posts about the Taliban, my point was quite simple and should not require an evasive nonresponse, such as the one below. . . .

jeanne's comments
Lawyers frequently object to testimony in court as "evasive" and "nonresponsive." That means "you didn't answer the question put to you." The accusation is pejorative, and intended to be so. At least, by the lawyer. So, we start this post with negative affect. Then we come to the example, which is not identified by it's author, but as "the one below." Sounds like Dick Platkin was at least perturbed when he wrote this. I suspect that the "string of posts about the Taliban" is also a part of his frustration, because the phrase doesn't seem to me to fit there. I think he means "unlike the reasoning in a string of posts about the Taliban . . . " If I'm right, I'd attribute the slip to the same affect reflected in the rest of the post.

What this brief analysis shows is that affect frequently slips into argument. And our adversarial obsessiveness with "winning", as well as our absolute determination to "force" others to hear us in good faith, merely adds to that affect. We have plenty of research to tell us that affect is not a good thing if we are trying to come to effective decision-making. Edward T. Hall reminds us that the most affect occurs at the informal level, in everyday transactions, that bear a huge resemblance to unmoderated discussions on the Internet. There is less affect at the formal level, where there are some rules about the transactions, that might resemble a moderated discussion on the Internet where messages, inappropriate for whatever reason, are pulled by the moderator. And there is least affect at the technical level, where social distance permits some of the affect to subside as we try to consider arguments "rationally." This technical level is the one at which "what ifs" come into play, hypotheticals, in the lawyer's parlance.

In short, I am asking the following, and would finally like some answers, instead of being dismissed as having an infantile disorder for expecting answers to clearly presented questions:

  1. Since the Taliban are bad, what about the other Mujahadin militias who the US has recently switched sides to support. Are they, therefore, good? Does the Northern Alliance deserve our support? Have they significantly improved their record on drug running, extortion, and political oppression, which was so bad in the 1993-96 period, that the US then utilized their iniquity to justify supporting the Taliban?

    jeanne's comments
    I would fuss at you, if you presented a question in this way in Moot Court. Why? Because the resort to colloquial language, "The Taliban are 'bad,' " starts off at an informal level that has a ind of challenging effect. The question also assumes a dichotomy, "good - bad." I would fuss that dichotomies, when discussing Afghanistan, are probably inappropriate because the structural context is almost beyond our imagination after twenty years of on-going war.

    Then, right in the middle of that challenge are good points for our discussion: "Have they significantly improved their record on drug running, extortion, and political oppression, which was so bad in the 1993-96 period, that the US then utilized their iniquity to justify supporting the Taliban?" Good question. Just don't bury it in a challenge. Public discourse is about asking a question when you have a good faith interest in hearing the answer. My bet is that Dick Platkin really would like a discussion of this issue. But I want you to notice that if you cloak the question in a challenge, then the challengee may respond to the challenge, not the question. The question as phrased begs the answer, "I never said the Mujahedin were good!" And now we're off to arguing about who's good and who's bad, instead of dealing with the issue of "if no one's perfect, how are we to choose allies and make international decisions?"

    This is the problem with affect in discourse. It's too easy to turn discourse into a kids' "Did so!" "Did not!" shouting match that goes nowhere. That might relieve some of our tension, but it won't get us any closer to hearing and understanding other good faith perspectives, and defusing the soap opera theatricality that accompanies most political arguments.

    In Moot Court, I want to see you get right down to weighing the evidence available to you, for example, the massacres in Mazar-i-Sharif. Look at the data reports. Make a time table. Share that in your discourse, without insisting that the data are God-given. Make a conclusion, given the probability of error in the data collection, then share that conclusion in the discussion so that others can raise alternative conclusions.

    Sometimes in Moot Court, I fuss that your statement is conclusionary. (And I just checked Merriam-Webster's for the word. It always sounds to me like I made it up. But I didn't, honest.) By conclusionary, I mean that you tell me that both the Mujahedin and the Taliban are bad. But you don't give me any details so that I can come to my own conclusion. If, on the other hand, you give me some details about the massacres in Mazar-i-Sharif then I can decide for myself whether both groups are "bad." And you know I'll fuss about the term "bad."

    Argumentation is really about facts and conclusions. Details and generalities. Whenever you make a statement, check to see that you have given details to support that statement. In a lot of ways, the best example is a "dog letter" recommendation. I can tell you that he's generous and caring, and inventive and good natured, and supportive of people. All that means nothing if I'm talking about my dog. Most letters of recommendation speak in such generalities that they could be about my dog, so they tell me little of the people they were written about. He is generous, in that he always offers his toys to others. He is caring, in that he wags his tail happily all the time. He is inventive, in that if you don't pick up his toy, he throws it at you, so you have to pick it up. He is good natured, in that he likes everybody, even other dogs.

    See the difference when you give details. It's harder to lie if details are required, because there's always the possiblity that the details will trip you up if they're not consistent. But also, when you have to give details, you sometimes discover, in the process of looking for them, that they weren't what you had assumed. Details force you to look for the inconsistencies in your own argument. Conclusions let you off the hook. Unfairly so.

    Consider the PSN "Debating War" in this light.

    2) Since the Taliban are bad, what about the three countries that nurtured them, brought them to power, and maintained support for them through mid-2001: Saudia Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States? 3) Since the Taliban were bad before 9/11, what action should be taken again the US officials who supported them? 4) Since Afghanistan and Pakistan have already signed an accord for onstructing the well publicized trans-Afgan Unocal pipeline, doesn't this suggest that the hidden oil-gas agenda of this war is now out in the open and the War on Terrorism is just a ruse? Dick Platkin In a message dated 2/25/2002 7:50:10 PM Pacific Standard Time, writes: Folks...I have been lurking reading these discussions about the war and the Taliban and would make the following comments: 1) yes, the regime is bad, so are many others for a wide range of reasons. Some our government support, some we even teach how to oppress and torture its people. The Taliban happened not to be one of those we support so in went the smart bombs. What is being argued...whether we should have, whether 9/11 will ever happen again, whether any of what went on in Kabul was directly connected to 9/11? And if the answer is no, as I believe it to be, then we can do anything we want (and this country does) whenever we want to whomever--was that in doubt? 2) yes, bombing and killing is bad. Did we stop the likelihood of terror by overthrowing the Taliban, no. Did we end oppression in Afghanistan by our military action, hardly. Have we ever intervened anywhere to better the lives of those who live there, unlikely. There are many regimes worthy of being removed because of their violence on their people. The choices and actions the US takes only reconfirm what most of us believe about our motives and interests. And in the end the military action has never moved us closer to what we reportedly fight for--that lesson is much older than Vietnam, blocked out of our social historical memories--yet we as a nation never shy away from supporting this stuff. 3) has the left in this country, all those who espouse membership in that amorphous entity and all organizations leading from the rear, always been pristine always taking the correct stance on all issues and never been at risk of seeming to be opportunistic--I don't think so. So why are we always so ready to demand perfection in our debates. 4) do we agree--even when we say the same thing--hardly; and certainly it is not a goal to agree, but to argue among ourselves to sharpen and contest arguments and positions. I can think of many positions by folks on this list that have been improved by having to respond, reflect, even recant positions because of what others have argued in response. So, I think the recent and ongoing discussion about what is Critical Thinking and its philosophical and political roots is what is best about PSN. But the occasional ranting about people's positions, and I think Dick Platkin's last post essentially asking each of us to put our lunch pails on the table or leave the room is the worst thing about PSN. Might we not ask Platkin to prove he is not an agent provocateur so prevalent in ultra-left circles turning us on each other--that would be equally objectionable in my view. Quite frankly Lauren has much more to contend with in answering Tamara Smith's posting. I hope and implore Lauren to ignore Platkin and relegate it to the more literal dustbin of his computer.

    Tamara Smith's posting:

    Re: Afghanistan
    by Tamara Smith
    25 February 2002 Lauren,

    I was at that conference with you and I heard something slightly, but importantly, different. I heard Medea Benjamin say that SOME people did say they were thankful for what the US was doing, and that they understood that the US did not mean to hurt them with the bombing. But she also stressed that other people, particulary women, said they wanted to get rid of the Taliban, but NOT by bombing, and particularly not by strengthening the also-hated Northern Alliance. Furthermore, she said that people were angrily saying, "if the US didn't mean to bomb our villages, why aren't they helping us to rebuild?" The woman who lost her stepsister was in the audience (sitting between us, not speaking) when Medea said that; I do not recall the chaplain to whom you refer.

    Maybe you heard something different in one of the workshops that I didn't attend, but the above is what I heard in the conference's keynote speech. CAN-TV in Chicago taped parts of the conference, including Medea's talk, as did IndyMedia, so we can watch or download it and not have to rely on our recollections. (I actually taped some of Medea's speech, too, but my batteries ran out in the middle of her talk!)

    : ) Tammy

    Tammy' message was in response to this message from Lauren Langman:

    Earlier tonite I was at a Global Justice conference, American Friends Service Committee, do good liberals, non academic. Two of the folks, one a woman who lost her step sister on flight #93....the other, chaplain at Univ Illinois @Chgo,

    Both made same point...talking with dozens and dozens of victims/kin of those died as a result of American bombs, eg. widows, folks that lost families, people that lost legs, arms,

    Wherever they went, people, and thats ordinary poor people, thanked America for getting rid of widely hated Taliban. They told many tales of Taliban atrocities, killing a man for about $2, genocide, etc.

    Now this is what die hard pacificists who were there say, and I hardly think they were brainwashed by W. Anyhow I consider my warhawk position vindicated, and this is coming from people who were there, not talking heads in the public spheres of cyberspace (see habermas discussions). Again I invite you and anyone else interested to come to my lefty 'Globalization/Social Justice conference.