Thursday, October 28, 2010

Contempt and the Public Sphere (A Footnote on Don Herzog's "Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders")

Like many other people, when reading the political blogosphere I am often struck by the prevalence of expressions of contempt. It is not simply that the “political public sphere” in the internet hardly corresponds to the Habermasian ideal of deliberation in which only the force of the better argument prevails; rather, expressions of contempt for the views and sometimes persons of others thoroughly pervade political argument. It is common to find claims that certain others have no (moral) “right” to speak on certain issues, or that their views should be ridiculed or ignored rather than engaged.

I am less interested in condemning this state of affairs (a pointless exercise anyway) than in trying to understand whether contempt is inextricably linked with public political argument. The thought crossed my mind while reading Don Herzog’s interesting book Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, which I discovered via Adrian Vermeule’s Law and the Limits of Reason. Herzog’s book could be described as a look at the political blogosphere in the British Isles circa 1817; he seems to have looked at every political pamphlet, newspaper, minor novel, and even popular song published between 1789 and 1834, and examined how coffeehouses, alehouses, and hairdressers' shops functioned as sites of political debate. It’s impressive, though I do not envy the undertaking (just imagining trying to write the contemporary version of this book makes me nauseous). 

As Herzog makes clear (at sometimes excruciating length, in fact), the political public sphere of the time was as filled with expressions of contempt, or perhaps more so, than the current political public sphere. Contempt was directed towards women, blacks, Jews, workers, rich people, poor people, politicians, hairdressers, etc.; reading Herzog, in fact, one gets the impression that most political argument at the time was simply composed of expressions of contempt by contending parties. (So much for the good old days before the internet). Moreover, though Herzog stresses that contempt was tightly linked to the “conservative” project of preserving hierarchies and preventing the transformation of “subjects into citizens,” the book makes it clear that contempt was deployed both to sustain hierarchy and deference on the part of subordinate groups and to undermine such hierarchy and deference; it was not the specific property of particular parties or groups (though conservatives and radicals typically expressed contempt in different ways, and made use of it for different purposes).

What makes the book interesting, beyond its account of the historical debates that shaped the emergence of a distinctively modern “conservatism” in Britain during those decades, is the way Herzog links the question of contempt with questions about epistemic authority: who is worth listening to, and who is not, and what norms should apply to apply to political debate.

Norms of political debate are not neutral with respect to epistemic authority. The Habermasian ideal of deliberation, for example, implicitly grants all citizens equal epistemic authority: all arguments are to be judged on the merits, not with respect to any characteristics of the person making them. This may imply, among other things, that one should deploy arguments sincerely rather than strategically, be open to correction, and extend interpretive charity to the positions of others (at least ideally).

But what if one thinks that the characteristics of some people – e.g., people who are far from me politically – are useful proxies for the likelihood that their arguments are worth listening to? (Life is short, after all – do I really have to listen to what everyone has to say?) And what do we do about people who violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the norms of debate – deploying arguments dishonestly or strategically, “concern-trolling,” refusing to accept evidence, etc.? Do we engage with them or punish them through expressions of contempt etc.? (And it is not always possible to determine who is behaving strategically and who is not; what looks like trolling to some may look like perfectly reasonable argument to others). Or how about people who have more influence than their (actual, rather than perceived) epistemic authority warrants? (What if we think, for example, that particular bloggers we dislike are more influential than their arguments warrant?) Do we engage with their views sincerely, in the confidence that “the truth will out,” or try to diminish their influence by attacking their epistemic authority by other means – ridicule, contempt, ad hominem argument, etc.? (Consider here debates about climate change or creationism in schools).

Herzog’s key idea (and here I sense a criticism of Habermas, though AFAIK Habermas is not mentioned in the book) is that distinctively political debate is always in part about the distribution of epistemic authority, i.e., about who has a “right” to speak and whose views are worth being listened to. Conservatives and radicals in the England of 1817 disagreed not merely about the merits of particular proposals (about suffrage, etc.), but about whether certain groups of people were worth taking seriously. And there is no neutral standpoint to determine who can or cannot be admitted to the public sphere, no neutral view that reveals the true distribution of knowledge and indicates what the true distribution of political influence should be; political debate is always (among other things) the attempt to shape the distribution of epistemic authority, and this attempt seems to be inescapably accompanied by the deployment of contempt. (Consider, by contrast, debates where epistemic authority is relatively uncontroversial, as in some purely scientific debates: the debate is non-political to the extent that the standards for evidence and argument are widely shared among participants, and hence to the extent that there is wide agreement among participants regarding who is or is not worth listening to).

The point I am trying to get at goes beyond the observation that party boundaries in politics are typically policed by expressions of contempt, and partisanship is inescapable in democratic politics (and at any rate there are good things to be said for partisanship in the public sphere). The question is whether one can one imagine a deliberative form of politics that is not underpinned by the deployment of contempt towards those who are not considered to be worth listening to? Are judgments that some people are not worth listening to necessarily expressions of contempt? And are the sanctions that we may think are necessary to keep debate healthy necessarily contemptuous?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I suspect that it is impossible to police any set of norms of debate without using sanctions that express contempt. To the extent that the public sphere is a political sphere, it will be pervaded by contempt (though to a greater or lesser extent), and hence the lamentations about the quality of our public discourse will always be with us. Democracy, in other words, may be structurally unsatisfying, no matter how deliberative it may be; a public sphere without contempt would be a public sphere from which politics properly has been excluded, either because of an accidental harmony of interests among its participants, or through the kind of coercion that prevents certain people from participating in it.

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