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Pod 6 Is Jerks

There's been a lot of talk lately about the recent Club for Growth ad in which an Iowa couple say that Howard Dean "should take his ... left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs." The left side of the blogosphere has pretty well ridiculed the ad as ineffectual name-calling. But there's a lesson in it to be learned by some of the less civil lefties -- the ones that use terminology like "BushCo" and "AWOL." Such names are expressive of such people's feelings about the current administration, just like the ad's litany of insults is expressive of the Club for Growth's feelings about Dean. But both are attempts to shift ideas out of the realm of rational discourse, a move at odds with the purpose of political debate.

"But wait," you say, "the insults to Bush have substantive content. He really is beholden to corporations, and he skipped out on his National Guard duty during Vietnam." True, those are rationally debatable and relevant criticisms of the president. Likewise, the Club for Growth could say "Dean's proposals really are far to the left of what Iowans want, and he really does have values and culture that are out of touch with the average Iowan." Those points could also be rationally debated. The point, however, is in the way the claims are raised.

Jürgen Habermas argues that any statement made in rational discussion must carry with it several claims: an "objective" claim that the factual content is true, an "intersubjective" claim that the speaker has the right to say what she's saying, and a "subjective" claim that she's honestly expressing her views. Each of these claims is a promise to be willing to back up the statement on a certain dimension with additional reasons and demonstrations. I would add to that that there are two modes in which such claims can be raised: the discursive and the cultural. When a claim is raised discursively, it is acknowledged by the speaker to be at issue, and the hearer is invited to respond. When a claim is raised culturally, it remains implicit. In order to challenge it, the hearer must "make an issue" of it, ths opening himself up to the charge of "dodging the real question," that is, the question that the speaker raised discursively. And in fact this tactic can be used not just when the hearer feels that a culturally raised claim needs to be addressed, but also when the hearer simply doesn't want to have to discuss the discursive claim.

To give an example, take the sentence "George W. Bush went AWOL from the National Guard." In this sentence, the objective claim regarding Bush's military service is raised discursively, putting it at issue for the hearer to respond to. Now consider the sentence "AWOL Bush wants to send a mission to Mars." In this case, the objective claim regarding Bush's military service is raised culturally, as background to the discursively raised objective claim regarding the space program. The claim about his military service is placed outside of the framework of rational discourse.

I use the term "cultural" for non-discursive claims because this mode is an important way that cultural attitudes are passed on and reinforced. The nature of cultural tradition is to be presumed closed to rational discussion unless proven otherwise. The burden is placed on the one who would challenge the recieved wisdom to "make an issue of it," rather than the purveyor of recieved wisdom taking on the burden of opening it up to question. When the hearer is a minority, there can be considerable pressure to simply accept the culturally made claims. "Political correctness" was an attempt to address this by proscribing terminology that carried bad cultural claims, thus forcing people who wanted to advance sexism or racism to do so discursively, where they would invite challenge (including challenge by their own conscience, as people are often not fully aware what cultural claims they're assuming in their language). What about when the hearer is an outsider, with her own set of cultural and discursive ideas framing the issue in a different way? Then there can arise the feeling that the other culture is simply irrational, because its members are not used to or skilled in defending it discursively, and because their exposition does not invite rational discussion leading to understanding. Such is the situation created when a liberal reads about the Democratic debate between the "seven dwarfs," or a conservative reads about the latest exploits of "$hrub."

This is not to say that culturally raised claims are necessarily bad. Some sort of culturally implied background is necessary to any rational discussion, and I'd hesitate to say that the opinion that, for example, racism is bad, need not be always raised discursively. The dividing line depends on the context. If one's aim is to have a rational discussion, it seems that any claims that could be at issue between the parties should be raised discursively. Thus "racism is bad" can be raised culturally within typical American political discourse, but a particular conclusion about the utility or properness of affirmative action should remain discursive. Certainly one's opinion on affirmative action may be based on the idea that racism is bad -- indeed, rational discourse works by using acceptable reasons to link a claim back to shared assumptions. But the two should not be conflated such that an opinion on affirmative action is advanced culturally, because doing so attempts to shut down the possibility of rational discussion of the issue. (As a side note, phrases like "given that ..." or "if we assume ..." can be used to acknowledge the speaker's use of culturally raised claims in order to "cut to the chase" of the point of interest. Such phrases stand as explicit requests to the hearer to not challenge a cultural claim at the present time.)

On the basis of the previous two paragraphs, one can conclude that insulting terminology is an acknowledgement of a limited audience. Someone who calls the president "the Chimp-in-Chief" is not speaking rationally to Americans in general, but only to the group who would accept the cultural claim as to Bush's simian nature, or who are willing to "mis-read" the statement as using the fairly neutral name "George W. Bush" in order to deal with the discursively raised claims (assuming that, unlike the Club for Growth ad, there actually are some) without either accepting the cultural claim or getting sidetracked into challenging it.


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