[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]
Wall Street is occupied. Across America, the streets have been taken. These popular revolts are an expression of a common cause. Ordinary people are convinced that the 2008 financial crisis was a moral, economic, and political disaster. Citizens have a hard time with the state of things, so they take their grievances to the pavement.
That common cause is easy to see. Their cause is communicated beautifully by the pithy slogan: “We are the 99%”. They are referring, here, to the historically unprecedented income disparity between 99% of the population and the 1% that controls the wealth.
Yet a certain class of pundit — the kind you see on the Oct 7/2011 edition of Real Time With Bill Maher — have found it difficult to decipher what the protesters have to say. Hence, the message of the 99%s is called “incoherent”. But this claim is just weird. The 99’s message is clear as crystal: there is a state of economic injustice, this state of affairs is on the whole a bad thing, and that this state of injustice need not exist.
The more interesting question is: how is it that an educated class of people has, by all appearances, lost the ability to read? It’s as if we’re living through the Day of the Triffids, except only the cable news anchors have gone blind.
To answer these questions, we have to step back and ask a more general one. How is it that people fail to talk to each other effectively?
Some time ago, Miranda Celeste Hale took issue with a claim made by a literary critic:
What [the critic] fails to understand is that, when it comes to effective communication, the onus is on the communicator, and that, if a communicator fails to reach their audience, they cannot blame their failure on the attitudes or supposed “deficiencies” of their readers. To assert otherwise is both counterproductive and gallingly elitist.”
This is an expression of Hale’s ‘clarity imperative’. And she’s making two solid points, here.
The first point to make is that the speaker has a lot of control over the way their message is interpreted, and so they have a duty to speak clearly. Philosopher of language H.P. Grice famously pointed out that the speaker has the duty to be cooperative in various ways — the speaker should not blather on for too long, should not say things that are false, and so on. Grice is like Hale in the sense that he puts the onus primarily on the speaker, not the listener.
The second point to make is that someone who knowingly traffics in nonsense is a moral elitist. As a younger version of me argued in a 2002 op-ed:
It saddens me to report that philosophy enthusiasts, modern philosophers and modern philosophy teachers alike have no grasp on how to communicate… If you’re a philosophy student, then odds are, you’ve noticed. You notice it when you ask a question about basic logic and receive a referral to Wittgenstein. You notice it when you propose a simple critique and have its merit gauged on whether or not someone else wrote about it. You certainly noticed it when you read a post-modernist philosopher and wondered just how much wacky tobaccy the French-to-English translator was smoking at the time of writing the book.
Yet all of the above authors — Hale, Grice, Nelson — provide an uneven analysis. Hale’s clarity imperative should not be exaggerated in such a way that places the burden entirely on the speaker. The fact is, both the speaker and the listener have their duties to each other. Just as the speaker has a duty to contribute in a cooperative way, the listener has to make an effort to follow along in good faith.
Of course, there may be contexts where it is important for us to focus on the obligations of the speaker more than the listener. But the role of the speaker is not going to make much sense of the present concern. The fact is, by their own admission, the American pundit class does not understand how to read the signs.
So let’s look at it from the other direction. How is it that two people might fail to communicate, because the listener isn’t pulling their own weight?
Grice suggested rules for speaking cooperatively in conversation. I intend to make some general remarks about the duties of active listeners engaged in conversational uptake. For good measure, I’ll illustrate each maxim with some topical goodies. (Be sure to click the Youtube links.)
#1. FIDELITY. The first rule is, don’t intentionally misrepresent the contents of what has been said.
If you have a lot of time and energy — for instance, if you’re a philosopher — then you ought to try to attribute as many true beliefs to the speaker as you can, so long as those beliefs are consistent with what has been said. If possible, try to get as much bang for your buck: listen for the broader message in context, to get the most information as you can. But if you don’t have that kind of time or energy — for instance, if you’re not a philosopher — then at least interpret others in such a way that they do not seem totally confused about themselves.
Admittedly, it can be hard to be charitable when you are trying to figure out the message of a crowd. But even so, there are better and worse ways of doing it.
An excellent tactic might be to look at what all the signs have in common, and judge them all on how much you think they are representative of the context. Consider [VIDEO 1]. Perhaps you don’t agree that we should abolish the Fed, but you do think that something is seriously awry with the banking system. If so, then congratulations are in order — you’ve found enough common ground to be able to say something about what is going on. This particular protester has some views to talk about, and by all indications, his views are appropriate to the context.
A bad tactic would be to single out a fart enthusiast, and draw conclusions about the nature of the protest from that.
#2. CANDOR. The listener also has the duty to not misrepresent their own level of engagement in the conversation.
If the listener is interested in the message, but finds the message confusing, then they ought to communicate their confusion (if possible). If the listener is unwilling or unable to follow along, then they ought to say so. If as a listener you find yourself bored, it may be that you are in fact listening to a boring person, and therefore should run away as if being pursued by leopards. But it may also be that you feel entitled to a circus, parade, and song, in which case you might consider relocating to hell, your proper domicile.
In ordinary talk, when a person is disengaged and feigns interest, we call it pretentious; and when they’re engaged but feign disinterest, we call it disingenuous. In both cases, at least one or more of the interlocutors is going to end up embarrassed, and usually the humiliation falls on the interlocutor who has less power. But actually, there’s not really much telling in advance who it’s going to be. Consider [VIDEO 2]. It is difficult to imagine that the visibly pretentious and relatively unknown CNN anchor in the linked clip will make a strong recovery.
#3. INTEGRITY. Provided that the listener is, in fact, engaged, he/she should be ready to make clear what type of conversation they are interested in having (i.e., the rules of their language-game).
If you expect a cooperative dialogue, then at minimum you should be prepared to say what “cooperation” means to you. Not everyone is playing the same game, or keeping score by the same rules.
Consider this exchange [VIDEO 3]. In it, an eloquent protester named Jessie makes some compelling remarks. While his responses are completely relevant to the interviewer’s prompts, he’s also playing a different game than his interrogator. NewsCorp’s interviewer wants to give credit to the Tea Party movement for inspiration, and to direct blame towards the Obama administration for inadequate response; Jessie credits the movement to the populace, and directs blame towards a mismanaged corporatist state.
Edit: Consider, also, this video from the CBC [VIDEO 4]. In it, author Chris Hedges subverts the expectations of his conversation partner by arguing that the protesters are the true conservatives, since they advocate the rule of law. Hedges also makes it clear, when being accused of being a ‘nutbar’, that he has no interest in that kind of adversarial exchange.
#4. HUMILITY. If you can’t engage in the conversation in a way you find satisfying, then consider either deferring to someone who can, or disengage with the conversation entirely.
For instance, media pundits might be having a hard time making sense of what the kids are going on about, much in the same way that Beethoven might have had a hard time listening to The Rap Music. Still, when it comes to the protests, the financial experts are having no trouble at all. Perhaps that might be worth pause.
And finally, an essential rule that applies to both speakers and hearers (which Grice missed):
#5. DIGNITY. Both the listener and speaker should treat their interlocutor as being worthy of consideration, and expect to be treated in the same way.
The vague way of putting it is to say, “Treat people as if they have some kind of dignity”. A less vague formulation would be to say, “Be willing, as far as possible, to ratify the other person’s self-concept.”
A first step, there, is figuring out how exactly people see themselves. By talking to them as if they were human beings, for instance.
A second step is to make sure you are consistent in the way you treat others, once you’ve figured out how. For example, you can’t treat someone with pomp and circumstance, and then go on to say things that are completely at odds with that sentiment. Consider the speech of the anchor in the linked clip [VIDEO 5]. If you click through, you’ll witness a bizarre interview where the anchor (in this case the speaker) goes out of her way to praise the interviewee as being in high esteem, a “national treasure”, and so on, while also making the argument that no taxpayer has any desire to support her. The incoherence is painful to endure.
This principle of dignity sounds like it is magnanimous, a kind of principle of kindness and generosity. But it’s actually a double-edged sword: treating people with dignity can be devastating. If a man presents himself as a clown, then it is consistent with his dignity for him to be treated as a clown. If you present yourself as a medical doctor, but have not actually got a degree, then it is consistent with your dignity for you to be treated as a charlatan.
So there you have it. Four listener’s duties, and one final duty for both speakers and hearers. That’s all I wanted to say.
I don’t have any snappy ending to this post. Anyway, thanks for reading, if you did. But if you were expecting to find a song, then fine, I’ve still got you covered.