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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: November 26, 2005
Latest Update: November 26, 2005

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Index of Topics on Site Substantive Depth in Discourse

One of the texts I want to briefly summarize for you is Albert O. Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction. Hirschman wrote this book for a think tank during the Reagan administration when liberals were horrified at what conservatives were doing to our safety nets (like having places to house and care for the mentall ill, that Reagan disbanded and did not replace in California). With the objective of getting liberals and conservatives to listen to one another in good faith in the interest of understanding the need for safety nets for the poor and those in crisis or catastrophe, Hirschman listened carefully to both sides. He came up with the startling conclusion that neither side was listening to the other.

Both liberals and conservatives were using the same basic arguments to deny any need to hear the Other. Hisrchman classified these denials as:

  • The Perversity Thesis

    This reaction to an opponent says that no matter what he does, it's going to turn out just the opposite of what he intended. Here's how HIrschman puts it, on p. 11:

    "This is, at first blush, a daring intellectual maneuiver. The structure of the argument is admirably simple, whereas the claim being made is rather extreme. It is not just asserted that a movement or a policy will fall short of its goal or will occasion unexpected costs or negative side effects: rather so goes the argument, the attempt to push society in a certain direction will result in its moving all right, but in the oppostie direction. Simple, intriguing, and devastating (if true), the argument has proven po;ular with generations of "reactionaries. as well as fairly effective with the public at large. In current debates it is often invoked as the counterintuitive, counterproductive, or most to the point, perverse effect of some "progressive" or "well-intentioned" public policy. (fn. omitted) Attempts to reach for liberty will make society sink into slavefy, the quest for democracy will produce oligarchy and tyranny, and social welfare programs will create more, rather than less, poverty. Everything backfires.

  • The Futility Thesis

    This reaction to an opponent says that no matter how much you struggle to change it, it always comes back to the same thing, greed. You can't change that. So where the perversity argument suggest that you can get change, but that change goes in the opposite direction from what you plan, the futility argument suggests that you can really get fundamental change, period. Here's how Hirschman puts it on p.43-44:

    "[The futility] argument . . . says that the attempt at change is abortive, that in ine way or another any alleged change is, was, or will be largely surface, facade, cosmetic, heance illusory, as the "deep" structures of society remain wholly untouched."

    . . .

    "[O]ne of the best-known (and best) jokes to come out of Eastern Europe after the installation of Communist regimes there in the wake of Wprld War II: "What is the difference between capitalism and socialism?" The answer: "In capitalism, man exploits man; in socialism, it's the other way round." Here was an effective way of asserting that nothing basic had changed in spite of the total transformation in property relations.Finally, Lewis Carroll's proverbial saying in Alice in Wonderland, "Her it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." expresses yet another facet of the futility thesis, placing it in a dynamic setting."

  • The Jeopardy Thesis

    The Jeopardy Thesis acknowledges that change can take place without going in the opposite direction to the one you planned, or without only superficial changes occuring, but it suggests that the cost of such change is so prohibitive that it places the whole society in jeopardy. In other words, you may get a poverty safety net, but only at the cost of taking the righteously earned profits of the rich (who make the law as the holders of power). Or you might pay the social security you promised to the elderly, but only at the cost of having to give up your pet wars. Here's how Hirschman puts it on p. 81:

    "The arguments of the perverse effect and of the futility thesis proceed along very different lines, but they have something in common: both are remakably simple and bald___therein, of course, lies much of their appeal [in dominant discourse]. In both cases it is shown how actions undertaken to achieve a certain purpose fail miserably to do so. Either no change at all occurs or the action yields an outcome that is the opposite of the one that was intended. It is actually surprising that I was able to account for a large and important portion of the reactionary arguments with these two extreme categories. For there is a third, more commonsensical and moderate way of arguing against a change which, because of the prevailing state of public opinion, one does not care to attack head-on (this, I have claimed, is a hallmark of "reactionary" rhetoric): it asserts that the proposed change, though perhaps desirable in itself, involves unacceptable costs or consequences of one sort or another."

    I hope these brief examples of Hirschman's work will help you see the complexity of getting us into real substantive discourse. It's so much easier to stop with the simple perverse or fertility thesis, or hide behind the jeopardy of overwhelming "costs." I have put up a brief bit of exchange from transform_dom. Check it out, look at the actual exchanges, and consider how comfortably and securely we avoid good faith efforts to hear one another. Mevysen fusses or "corrects," in the hope it will make you listen in good faith; I coerce by luring you with points on which we can agree; Beau overwhelms us with erudition we can't match; Kathleen gently persuades us. We all struggle with avoiding the rhetoric of reaction in different ways. My own assessment, despite circumstances dragging me away from the participation I hoped for, is that you're doing a pretty good job of dragging each other, sometimes gently, sometimes roughly, toward paths around what Hirschman described as the pitfalls of substantive discourse.

    Examples from transform_dom:

    The following example from transform_dom is illustrative. Use the up thread to follow the dialog where I've cut some of it.

    Obarmarthree wrote on Saturday, November 26, 2005, in Message No. 8427, and jeanne responded on Saturday, November 26, 2005, in Message No. 8459:


    Answer to your question, "Dude, why is it that everytime you respond to someones posting, you have this need to "Correct" them???????????? Sometimes silence can be just as powerful." Mevysen is trying to draw you into deeper substantive meaning. That's what this group is about.

    I'll grant you that Mevysen sounds like a teacher, but then, he is. He's been with me for years, and he's heading towards a Ph.D. that will let him teach in our state college system.

    But more than that, this is a discussion group based on our making a good faith effort to "understand" in the sense of trying to put ourselves in the "other's" shoes. When Mevysen is "correcting," he's giving you information that you seem not to have had. That's important to understanding the left position he represents. You can't just dismiss him by choosing not to hear what he has to say. That puts you in bad faith, as far as understanding Mevysen and his validity claims go. And he's right, that lots of the time, when we don't have relevant information, it's because we are taking our cues from dominant discourse.

    What "illocutionary discourse," or the discourse of understanding the other, permits you to do in good faith, is to present your own validity claim, with his claim taken into account. That means either retract your claim of Schwarzenegger having been voted in "overwhelmingly," or show how Mevysen's additional information is irrelevant to your claim. Then the two of you might come closer to genuine understanding of one another. Then we can have governance discourse.

    Such dialog is one means of getting deeper into the substantive argument than just saying he was "voted in overwhelming," "was not," "was, too," etc. Silence is not an argument in illocutionary discourse, it's a mere denial of answerability.

    I'll try to get some of this discussion up on the site for everyone. It's a good one. jeanne

    Tony Barriere wrote in Message No. 8452, on Saturday, November 26, 2005 and jeanne responded in Message No. same day:

    Tony: "Michael how's it going?. Just one thing, Yes everyone wants lower prices on resources that we all need, such as oil, but your sixth point is exactly what you argue against. "Sixth nationalize the oil companies, electric companies and every utility we all depend on or regulate them to a profit of 10 % period. over the last few months alone the oil companies have posted profitts of in excess of forty billion dollars. I say half of it belongs to the citizens of california, take the money 20 billion and invest it immediatly in the school infastructure." If I'm reading you right, the government should step in and make these companies do these things? Yeah, that'd be great for us, but wouldn't that open up the door for the government to run whatever they want (Business wise). Basically no more "for the people, of the people, by the people". Sounds kind of fascist to me. Although yes I would love for these companies to lower prices, I wouldn't want it to be done this way. Please explain."

    jeanne: "Tony, I agree that it's lots more complex than just taking over the oil companies profits, but if we continue to allow such greed and exploitation to the detriment of survival needs, like genuine and solid education for all, won't we have an even more fascist result as the companies rule for themselves? Must it be either or? Couldn't we the citizens gain the knowledge demand governance that would prevent our being "had," as Mevysen put it, I think?"

    Discussion Questions

    1. How does Hirschman's Rhetoric of Reaction help explain why it is so important to try to understand the Other?

      Consider that when one objects to "correction," the wicked little unstated assumption is that "what I know" is as good as "what you know," assuming a hierarchy in which one's own knowledge is superior and completely failing to understand why the Other is making the validity claim he is. The purpose of illocutionary discussion is to avoid that pitfall of arrogance.

      Consider that Mevysen and Beau are being equally arrogant when they "correct" or provide you with information that your prior argument shows you are not taking into account. The difference is that they are citing (or could cite) sources for the information. A good example is Obarmarthree's misspeaking of the "overwhelming majority" by which Schwarzenegger was elected. I haven't checked this, but am assuming Michael's ability to cite the sources because I know we taught him how. If you want the sources, ask him. When your source is what you've heard, or dominant discourse, it's indeed possible that you're wrong unless you can cite the sources.

      Are the sources right? Now we're into statistical analysis. Check the source's origin, its accessibility, the accuracy of its analysis, etc. I'm sorry, but to my knowledge, there aren't any "right answer" websites maintained by people with right answers. But there are means of checking the validity of data. Hirschman points out the extent to which we don't bother to check our data and to argue rationally.

    2. How does Tony's rejection of Michael's desire to simply limit oil company profits and take the extra for education fit into Hirschman's Rhetoric of Reaction?

      Consider that Tony, in refecting Michael's solution, reverts to a jeopardy thesis, more reasoned and common sensical than the knee-jerk futility and perversity theses of dominant discourse. But instead of suggesting how Michael's suggestion might need to be modified, Tony suggests a slippery slope jeopardy argument, that it would "open the door for the government to run whatever they want (Business wise)." tony, notice how that would just shut Michael's attempt to get change down right at the starting gate. I agree with your slippery slope analysis in that once you start in hte direction of government control you risk the government going too far with control. See the difference between capitalism and socialism above.

    3. Why is dominant discourse a pitfall for "deep" substantive reasoning on social issues?

      Consider that dominant discourse is "what everybody knows," "ideas floating in the air, as the French say," "cocktail, supermarket, lunchroom conversation." As such, it is the lollygagging we exchange informally and socially, and discourse that carries no great weight. Everyone is allowed an opinion, and usually everyone expresses one, regardless of their underlying knowledge of the issue. I heard two older women in a medical office the other day discussing the tragedy of young people not knowing how to do things competently, having learned almost nothing. And where did they get this knowledge of young people? But both agreed emphatically with one another while I, who work daily with young people, wouldn't have been believed if I had challenged their unstated assumptions. I would have gotten the kind of response that Mevysen got from Obarmarthree: Who are you to "correct" us?

      Consider that accepting that everyone's opinion is equally valid is, in a sloppy sense, postmodern. Lyotard insists that there is no one over-riding metanarrative. And, today, we recognize the validity of many perspectives. But that's sloppy in the sense that we have grown used to not forcing students to substantiate their opinions with authority and solid reasoning. Another reason that the whole testing phenomenon sucks. We need to practice critical reasoning and analysis so that we can effectively understand different perspectives and their validity claims. Again, Hirschman reminds us that much of what we hear is rhetoric of reaction, and not a reasoned justification for a validity claim at all. In that sense, Lyotard is right, and one can see how the postmodern moral and ethical relativism arose. If we're judging by rhetoric games alone, then we have no way to discern valid claims from false, ill-founded claims. That doesn't make them all equally right. This was one of Habermas' arguments: that we need at least to retain one metanarrative: that of critical evaluation. I would disagree with Habermas, in that even critical evaluation is based on unstated assumptions that can bias the evaluation. But I would agree that we need to insist upon some form of discourse, such as illocutionary discourse, in which we try to sort out the foundations of belief and reason that underly competing validity claims, acknowledging that there is no perfect metanarrative for such purposes. At the very least there could be a good faith hearing, and collaborative efforts to discover what those foundations are. Maria Pia Lara is helpful on this point.

    4. Where would jeanne's jaguars fit in an illocutionary dialog. Could she make a validity claim for the existence of her jaguars?

      Consider that she couldn't scientifically prove their existence because they are mythos rather than logos. But she sees them; she pets them; they interact in her life and in the lives of others. So she could make a validity claim for their existence. They exist in her world; they help to make that world more loveable. It is in this sense that Lyotard would say no single over-riding validity claim can be based on simply logos, or simply mythos, or work as "the true" metanarrative. We need to leave "worm holes" that will let us move from wrld to world within our cosmos as the "worm holes" in membranes would let us move from cosmos to cosmos when our sun dies out.

      W.I. Thomas said long ago that situations are real if men define them as real. If I define my jaguars as real, and some of you accept them as real. They are real to all intents and purposes, for we act as if they are real. What we must not give up in our critical evaluation of their reality is whether I have contradicted other postulates of our cognitive system of science. I don't think I have. I didn't say that you could see them, unless you chose to see them. A belief issue. I didn't claim that you could hold them, weigh them, or do anything else in our cognitive system that would prove that they were here, or there. So I didn't contradict the reality we can know scientifically. I simply said they exist in my perspective of the world. They do. And I offer my story so that you can understand why I believe in them. They are as real as the whole classes of children I taught when I was two. Those children were then and still are part of my perspective of my world. Today they've turned into you, real students who exist in a sort of traditional way in an educational institution. But I'll bet my teaching would make a lot more sense if we evaluated it based on its foundations in the classes that were mine when I was two years old, and the jaguars who protect me. It is in postmodernity's tolerance of these many personal worlds that we are slowly learning to allow individual answerability to function effectively alongside the community's more generalized boundaries for common action. My jaguars don't get a vote. But they do have a say, through my perspective of the world, and through the way that perspective interacts with yours.

    5. Why does Hirschman say the Jeopardy Thesis is more common sensical that the Perversity and Futility Theses?

      Consider that instead of simply saying you can't get change, the jeopardy thesis says you can get change, but at a cost that makes it not worth it. Kind of like you have to throw out the baby with the bath water, and that really doesn't get you any where. More to the point today, if you take the tax cuts for the rich away they will be so pissed off, you'll use your base support and the the Republicans will lose control. Therefore, the cost is too great, or translated for public consumption, the cost of change would be to harm those in power, and they are the ones making the laws, so it's kind of unrealistic to expect them to harm themselves. Kind of like you can't expect the Queen to fund the revolution to get rid of the monarchy. See Hirschman's explanation.

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