my discourse is better than yours
August 25, 2016
I made an off-hand comment on tumblr (and twitter too I think) about how sneering at and/or critiquing Teh Discourse is discourse. The whole point of ‘discourse’ as a concept (as articulated by Foucault) is that it represents the totality of the entire domain, inclusive of the resistance to whatever is being perceived as the discourse. Yes, I understand that bc I’ve been pretty prominent in sneering at Teh Discourse myself – I mean… I’ve been using ‘Teh Discourse’ for ages as a way to mock it – it might look like I’m trying to distance myself from being ‘one of them’. But I do recognize that I am ‘one of them’ (and you probably are too).
Of course, framing your discourse as being counter-non-discourse is a rhetorical tool. Just like invoking one of the ‘plain language’ movements that periodically go around (ie, ‘academic jargon is inaccessible to joe average’). Actually, for that matter, so is the notion of ‘authenticity’ in expression via ‘speaking from experience’. These are all different kinds of rhetorical tools.
Take note that I’m not saying that rhetorical tools are ‘bad’. Like most tools their impact depends on who using the tool and for what purposes. Also note that ‘rhetorical’ can be just a fancy way of saying ‘persuasive’ (yes, it occassionally has a bad rep for being empty or whatever but this too is a rhetorical tool). Also… a meta-discursive post like this is also ‘discourse’ (recall that ‘meta-discourse’ is just discourse about discourse).
I’m taking the time to say all of this because I recently saw ‘discoursers’ used as a perjorative to partially implicate people who have some of my positions on things. And sure, just like anyone, I take umbrage at being spoken of in disparaging ways. But more to the point, I recognize this rhetorical tool for what it is. I don’t even particularly care about being disparaged beyond how it is occuring in this instance.
The problem with inventing pejoratives like ‘discoursers’ or, my favourite, ‘social justice warriors’ is that they invariably instantiate one of two kinds of fallacies: the straw man fallacy and/or the ad hominem. I don’t care so much about the ad hominem (or really fallacies at all), but for me the straw man is more important because it allows for intellectual laziness. Recall that the straw man fallacy is about representing an argument as being weaker than it is and refuting that rather than the actual point.
Once you slap a pejorative on an entire body of thought, people, discourse, whatever you essentially take a snapshot of whatever you think the object of your derision is and this becomes the referrent. As I wrote in my essay on ‘sjw’ as a pejorative, this particular instance means that ‘sjw’ more accurately points to a set of behaviours rather than any set of coherent ideas. In other words, its essentially tone policing that is now taken as criticism of a position or body of thought.
It’s lazy. And it encourages intellectual laziness.
In context, ‘discoursers’ was referring to (I think) people like me who’ve espoused a different view of the gay community (recall that I’ve abandoned ‘queer’ in favour of using ‘gay’ as my catchall instead). I’ve said over and over and over again that the ‘gay umbrella’ is best viewed as a plurality of distinct (and occassionally overlapping) communities, rather than as a singular whole. So they are espousing a singular, unified community that encompasses all gays.
Which fine. Whatever. I understand why they think this. And I obviously disagree. Since this post is about meta-discourse, I’m not going to engage this particular notion at the moment. I’m more interested in analyzing the rhetorical move of creating a pejorative like ‘discoursers’ in context of that post.
The post went on to talk about gatekeeping and identity policing. And then it went on to say how the ‘lgbt community (or whatever) was supposed to be welcoming’ and this is my stopping point. Because it is at this point that the thinker begins to do exactly what they claim to be criticising (ie ‘discourse’ in the way they are understanding it).
So here are the rhetorical steps: (1) create a pejorative as a way to dismiss a position you don’t agree with, without having to engage it; (2) express your point of view; and (3) go on to push your own normative, hegemonic notion of ‘community’. What this does for the thinker is that by the time you get to ‘the community is supposed to be welcoming’ it isn’t easily recognizable as a prescriptive claim, rather than a descriptive one.
I mean. They just spent all this time talking about how gatekeeping, identity policing, and exclusion are bad and wrong. So obviously the community is (supposed to be) welcoming. But even the thinker cannot express their view without using prescriptive language like ‘supposed to be’ because that’s exactly what it is: a prescriptive, normative, and hegemonic claim. And they know it (even if just subconsciously).
But all the previous rhetoric gets you to a point where when you see this conclusion, you nod to yourself and you think, “they totally have a point”. Which is the magic of rhetoric! Rhetoric is about trying to persuade your audience. So there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this….
Unless you take into account the straw man fallacy. Now, I’ve also been vocal that I think some classic fallacies like the straw man one are kind of dubious, so I personally don’t often dismiss an argument if it invokes a fallacy. Everyone’s mileage will be different with this.
So wait… if I’m not saying that this post was wrong and that its structure or whatever was ‘bad’, wtf am I saying, right?
Not too much beyond simply giving a lesson in how rhetoric works, tbh. But also exposing the ways that we can use rhetoric to do the exact thing we are criticizing. The only real difference between ‘them’ and me is that I’m explicit and open about the fact that I’m all about prescriptive, normative claims. I mean… this is why I frame myself and my writing as ‘philosophy’. Philosophy is 1000% about talking about how the world ought to be, rather than how it is.
Shit like that post tends to bug me because its disingenuous and, to some extent, dishonest. Not dishonest because its lying to the reader, but rather because in most of these cases the writer isn’t being honest with themselves. Which tends to devolve into certain kinds of moralism that irritate me.
In this case, the writer doesn’t quite seem to understand that ‘the community is supposed to be welcoming’ is simply a normative claim that is not substantially different than ‘the community is many distinct but overlapping communities that should recognize this so we can start working in solidarity with each other’. Both are prescriptive, not descriptive.