Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On Conventional Discourse: A Post Mortem

Today, millions of Americans woke up in an alternate world. Some woke up in a world in which there was much to celebrate. Others woke up in a world in which tears of disbelief were all they could muster. And, still others woke up feeling, well, not much different than they had in preceding weeks, months, and/or years. Whatever world it is that you found yourself in this morning, you no doubt found yourself wondering how others could have woken up in any other world than yours. To which, I offer a thought - what does the death of a discourse look like?

We all know what it's like to go in circles with someone regarding something that, ultimately, turns out to be a semantic issue. Sometimes we're simply mistaken about the common use of a word. Other times, we're employing terms in completely valid, but unusual ways. Perhaps our varying usages are subtly, but contextually, different. Other times we simply can't come to agree on what a particular word means at all. That might seem silly, but how many times have you been engaged in an argument in which people tried to prevail by appealing to some definitional entry from a dictionary? It happens more often than you might think.

But the scope of this "semantic" issue may be broader than you'd expect. As many post-positivist philosophers and linguists have pointed out, not only words (as we consider them) but symbols, utterances, phrases, dialects, and entire works - even when identical in formal structure - can have not just different meanings, but completely different functions in human communication. Discourse itself, then, is heavily contextualized and thus easily misunderstood.

If you walked into a room and were to find a piece of paper with a "9" on it, what could you make of it? Is it the number "nine"? Perhaps the number "six"? Could it be someone's answer to a question? Maybe it's a command to execute the ninth step in an algorithm. Or is it a piece of artistic expression? If, by chance, it was created by some random physical phenomenon (and not by human-hand) then it's actually none of these things at all, despite what you may have initially thought...

My point here is that we can very much be observing the same structures, the same symbols, the same words, and yet be talking about vastly different things. Conversations that appear conventional, can have completely non-conventional functions...and even purposefully so. We may believe we're having a certain sort of rational discussion or argument with someone, when their aim is something entirely different. On the other hand, we may be genuine in our discourse and yet still fail in parsing the context of a conversation, missing out entirely on the motivations and concerns of the people we're engaged with.

These phenomena - these mistakes - are, I believe, at the heart of so much of the division between our "separate worlds" this morning. Instead of pointing fingers, hyperventilating, or making idle threats, it might be more constructive to take a step back and look not so much at the content of our discourse, but rather its changing shape.

Can you kill a man with a certain kind of discourse? Can you talk over him, and around him, and under him in such a way that you close him off - that you seclude him? Can you engage someone in a conversation that they're somehow never a part of? If we can hear, and not listen, can we speak, and not mean? Have our conversations become mere mental games? Have we become each others' pawns, in that way?

I don't ask these questions in jest. They're points of legitimate concern for me. It's one thing to see the world differently from one another. That is simply a part of our shared subjective experience as human beings. But do social/political systems, and their real-world consequences, incentivize us (at some point) to head off real discourse - in which we communally rationalize with other cognizant beings - in favor of using empty words to push and pull them instead?

I'd like to think that real, tangible, human change is possible when we deal with each other squarely. Many philosophers have believed that this is literally the meaning of life...the most important thing we can ever do. More important than love. More important than creating a family. More important than honoring our traditions. The idea that two (or more) people can sit down and entertain the deepest mysteries of life together; that you can disagree about almost anything under the sun, and yet still share in this intimate process of trying to change each others' minds, with love and respect, without malice...not because you can use them to some end...but rather because they mean something to you as another human being...and that respect for yourself is reflected in precisely the way you respect them...this idea is something I've always cherished most about the human experience.

And yet I feel it's being lost, somehow. Our arguments have the same forms. The words fill the same space. But, more and more, it seems like an empty ritual. Why do we talk at all? Is it to "win"? To punish? To garner pity? To induce fear? To feel superior? I think, if I had to be honest, most of what I've seen throughout this whole election season, up to and including today, has been outside the vein of healthy, mature discourse. And I've fallen victim to it just as much as anyone else.

There are times to fight. Times to be angry. To be resentful. To feel righteous. To feel inconsolable. But these can't be all the things we are. Our social and political discourse can't be reduced to some cause and effect lattice of pushing and pulling on people as if we were all each other's inanimate play-toys. If we want to mature, if we want to be fully human, we have to be more than that.

Today I could be doing what everyone else is doing - laughing, crying, pointing, sneering. I could be telling all the people I vehemently disagree with how silly they are. But, reflecting on the behavior of everyone, how they have reacted to each other, how I've reacted to's clear that engaging in that kind of behavior isn't the way out of this. It doesn't engage. It inculcates. It deadens. I don't want to be a part of that world - a world where I can never trust the sincerity of others, where I feel like I'm just a piece of someone else's puzzle, and they're just scrambling to get me in place.

I think maybe there is a world in which we can wake up together. Where we may not always agree, but where we can respect one another enough to be speaking the same be playing the same game. The social and political structures of old are buckling under their own weight. The time is now for reaching out to the humanity in others - to see each other, as human beings, for the first time again. We can keep giving into the fear, the panic, and the anger...or we can divorce these reactionary impulses once and for all, and finally start living up to our potential.

Today I'm rededicating myself; to listening, to reading, to writing, to engaging, to whatever ways I can. To make the world a better place than I left it. To lift one heart. To change one mind. To have my mind changed. To make sure we never ever forget the one thing we all share - our humanity.