Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The difference democratic challenge: why the communicative challenge fails

Today we move onto the meaty part of this project, where I lay out my case against what I have called the communicative challenge. That interpretation of what the difference democratic complaint is claims that the problem with deliberative democracy is that it neglects the different ways different cultures advance and discuss claims. Because the deliberative process is the product of one culture rather than another, this official culture is benefited to the disadvantage of all the unofficial cultures that might be part of the society. The problem with this claim is that, ultimately, the manner in which claims are discussed is just window-dressing, as I endeavour to show.

I take the follow quote from Iris Marion Young to state the communicative challenge: “Understanding the role of rhetoric in political communication is important precisely because the meaning of a discourse, its pragmatic operation in a situation of communicative interaction, depends as much on its rhetorical as its assertoric aspects.” This would mean that we are missing something of importance if we take deliberations to just be the weighing of reasons that are given in the forms of assertions or propositions. But this can't be right. The 'communicative interaction' at issue here is collectively coming to a decision, and the 'pragmatic operation' here must be something that brings the participants towards an agreement on what the right course of action is. The pragmatic operation must be something which picks our right rather than wrong courses of action, if it is to have any pragmatic value at all. But rhetoric is incapable of pointing out anything at all, if it is going to be understood as communication which isn't assertoric. There is nothing which is signified by an utterance's rhetoric. Because it performs no signification, it can't point anybody in any direction, never mind the right one. Thus, it can't play the role Young is claiming for it here.

Here is an argument to the effect that rhetoric and non-assertoric features of communication feature beside the substantive parts of deliberation, rather than playing a part in it. Let us suppose that there is some communicative act C which displays rhetorical feature R, and that C presents significant and important reason that needs to be considered in the deliberation. Is C's importance dependent on R? That is, would C be any less weighty if R was different? The answer is no. There is a dilemma here: either R has to the power to make some C more important than it would be otherwise; or C's importance is independent of R. You can't take the first option, because then R itself would confer importance in its own right: some C would be more weighty just for displaying R. This is wrong, because there are constraints on when some R can count as a good feature: even if some R is appropriate in one context, that same rhetorical aspect might confer no importance at all in another. For instance, Young points to the case of Carol Mosley Braun's impassioned address to the US senate urging her colleagues not to renew the patent on, and therefore endorse, the Confederate flag insignia. Young claims that Mosley's “extreme and even disruptive speech contributed positively to a deliberative process by motivating officials to discuss an important issue.” But, of course, those exact same rhetorical features which ignited a debate could have been used to draw attention to any topic. And it is clear that Mosley's actions wouldn't attract the praise it has if she had done if she has protested similarly against, say, the continued acknowledgement of a day to commemorate Martin Luther King Jnr. My point is that there are constraints on when such rhetorical features are appropriate, and they are appropriate or not in light of the substantive claims that they are attached to. But it is the content and status of the substantive claims, of the assertoric (propositional) content of C, in virtue of which some rhetorical feature R is appropriate or not. The dependency works the wrong way round for R to be an importance-conferring feature of C: for some C, the importance of R is dependent on the importance of that C. Thus, in the dilemma, we must take the second option: C's importance is independent of R. Thus, while rhetoric might accompany deliberation, the deliberation carries the weight and importance it has independently of that rhetoric.

My claim is that the rhetoric with which a point is advanced plays no part in whether that point is something we need to take seriously. Rhetoric paradigmatically plays a role in what we as a matter of fact do pay attention to, but, as I argue, it has no power to determine what we should pay attention to. It simple isn't a substantive enough part of communication to do so. Nor can Young and other difference democrats claim that rhetoric still carries weight in accompanying assertoric claims, for the following reasons. Young rightly goes to great pains to stress that rhetoric can't replace argumentation, and points out that the predominant views on how communication work allows a space for non-assertoric communication in all speech acts. But we can divvy up quite neatly the relevant work that the speech acts do, as my argument above has: whether a piece of rhetoric is worthy of attention or not is based upon the importance of the assertoric claims that it accompanies. Rhetoric might accompany all statements, but, for our purposes at least, as a passenger rather than a driver. There is a practical goal which our political deliberation works towards, surveying the range of possible courses of action and choosing the right rather than wrong ones, and rhetoric can only play an incidental part in that task.

I believe that trying to find a substantive deliberative role for non-assertoric communication in political deliberation rests on a confusion. It is true and worth noting that actual presentation of a position inside a deliberation is going to come in a package with rhetoric – as Young and others have stressed, 'dispassionate' is a rhetorical mode as well. But it is not true that the rhetoric in some way constitutes the argument. I am not targeting just the very strong claim that all (political) communication is strategic, where all the force the statement of a position might have is supposed to be rhetorical. I am pointing towards the weaker claim that the argument isn't whole without the rhetoric. The argument I gave earlier targets just this second claim, and criticises it for placing an independent value to the rhetoric of a statement which simply isn't there. Non-assertoric features of communication piggyback on the assertoric significance of the issues they are attached to. The clear and level-headed statement of assertions and propositions which so many deliberative democrats take as their paradigm comes with rhetorical, non-assertoric aspects, but those aspects also piggyback on the significance of the claims they accompany, just like all rhetoric does.

Young makes a further claim about the role of the non-assertoric aspects of communication: “Rhetoric always accompanies argument, by situating the argument for a particular audience and giving it embodied style and tone.” I deny that either of these aspects is as substantive as Young claims. Firstly, while messages might indeed be catered to their audiences, they are still meaningful and significant for people outside of the audiences, because the propositional content of statements respect no in-group/out-group boundaries. If the claim is that those outside of the target audience somehow can't make sense of the communication, then counterexamples abound: the fact that we not only can make sense of but also take great interest in the private correspondents of people we have never met, though they never intended to say those things to us; the fact that a book like Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics was squarely aimed at a certain audience (well-off young men of ancient Athens) and is awash with idiosyncrasies of its time, but still garners prime attention in our current debates on its issues; people from one group being chilled to hear the  members on another group among each other inciting violence against them; and so on. There simply is no deeper significance to whom a statement is directed: it still means what it means. The same goes for how those points are stated: by now I hope to have convincingly shown that the importance of our deliberation is not hostage to how we phrase it. Again, I conclude, it isn't the idiom that is at issue, but rather what the things we say mean.

I have done my best to show during political deliberation there is a point that is being worked to, and that only the assertoric content of the discussion on that point can play a substantial part in determining its weight. Rhetoric is unable to affect the importance of an issue, because it doesn't have any substance of it own, instead, rhetoric can at best come attached to matters of substance. What this amounts to is saying that the difference democratic challenge is not a verbal issue: if it is going to be deserving of our attention, that challenge must turn out to be squarely addressing substantive political states of affairs. To provide an account of how that would go, we need to evaluate the representative, as opposed to the communicative, challenge to deliberative democracy.


  1. Typical contentful assertions are generally not interpretable unless embedded in a social context. If the social context of the official and unofficial (or any two) cultures differs significantly, then communication cannot occur. Some assumptions can be deeply embedded in a particular culture, and prevent effective communication on certain issues unless they are made explicit, and the culture may deny those assumptions. As an extreme example, some cultures won't publicly discuss certain issues, and are excluded from the political debate. That deliberative democracy 'neglects the different ways different cultures advance and discuss claims' seems to be a far broader and weighty problem than the issue of rhetoric raised by Young, which you resolve via narrow, exclusory, (though not unreasonable) definitions of rhetoric and substantive content. Andrew

  2. I try to handle this point with the distinction between the communicative and representative challenges. The extreme example you mention (which is, alas, rather common in many places: the standing of nomadic peoples in settled societies, for instance, and even in NZ issues of substantial Maori sovereignty is beyond the pale) is the type of thing I hope to capture when discussing the representative challenge. Those aren't matters where what is at issue is how matters are discussed, what is happening there is that there is a substantial disagreement between political cultures about what counts as an appropriate political claim.

    I can make the strict split between assertoric and non-assertoric communication (a distinction brought to the table by the difference democrats, after all) because communication is purposive. There might be problems with interpretation (an understatement!) but when you are trying to understand what someone is telling you, there are right and wrong interpretations. Understanding something different from what they mean is a miscommunication, and consequently is wrong, and objectively wrong at that. And once we try to make sense of the substantial political claims that people try to communicate to each other, we come to what I have called the representative challenge. That bit comes tomorrow.