Wow. Such Discourse. Much Amaze: How Discourse Gets in the Way of Discourse

To start, a couple definitions:
Discourse (1) n.: written or spoken communication or debate.

Discourse (2) n.: a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language; the discourse is a social boundary that defines what statements can be said about a topic.

I’ve been thinking about discourse and conversation lately, and how difficult it can be to feel competent when you find yourself weaving through a situation in which you hold beliefs or opinions that differ from most everyone else in the group.

Thanks to these deep thoughts, I’m working on another found text project. In doing research and gathering texts, I’ve been doing a good deal of reading about the theories of discourse, ideology and the dynamics of political correctness, among other things. They’re all sort of intertwined with each other.

Being of a minority opinion can make for awkward situations, especially when you want to have a deep, idea-driven, inquisitive sort of conversation with people, but you run up against some of the things that constrain what we can say or even talk about with certain people or in certain groups.

The passage below has stuck with me. It’s from an essay called “What You Can’t Say.”

Graham goes on to explain how this was wise at the time: “[John] Milton was an argumentative fellow, and the Inquisition was a bit restive at that time. But I think the difference between Milton’s situation and ours is only a matter of degree. Every era has its heresies, and if you don’t get imprisoned for them you will at least get in enough trouble that it becomes a complete distraction.”

Every era has its heresies, but also every social group, according to Glenn C. Loury, writing about how political correctness functions.

By “heresy,” of course, we’re not necessarily talking about religious heresy. Like Loury suggests, heresy writ large can simply be a statement that does not align with a consensus view. Maybe what makes it heresy, though, is when there are social consequences for it.

Groups of human beings are naturally pretty good at banding together and shoving people around. Sometimes—maybe even most times—this happens in subtle and silent, unconscious and unintentional ways. But as silent as the workings of discourse can be, the silence they produce can be pretty deafening.

One result of being of a minority opinion is what some sociologists call the “spiral of silence,” which means basically that you keep your mouth shut for fear of being ostracized or criticized. A Pew study found that this happens on social media a lot. The situation, for me, feels pretty common.

Tell me if this doesn’t gel with your experience, but it feels right when I look at my own:

​A relative few people, the louder ones, have no qualms with making or sharing bold claims on social media. Often, they have no qualms because they’re actually surrounded by a consensus among their friends/followers/etc. who, on the whole, may agree with them. The minority gets quiet in the face of consensus. I know what happens when I share a certain sort of article or meme, even if I have questions or doubts about it (like, maybe I want to discuss it?). Conversely, I know what happens when I disagree with or challenge the blog post shared by a member of that louder consensus. I quietly hit the backspace key on my dissenting comment; I quietly click the “unfollow” button; I quietly just click away, frustrated again because I know what happens if I don’t: at best, a politely-worded bout of posturing and counter-posturing, each message tinged with passive aggression and subtle last-word markers; at worst—well, less subtle posturing and counter-posturing.

Frankly, it’s too easy to be on the receiving end of or get drawn into ad hominem reasoning, when “a speaker’s violation of [social, discursive] protocol turns attention from the worth of his case toward an inquiry into his character, the outcome of which depends on what is known about the character of others who have spoken in a similar way” (Loury).

Suddenly you’re no longer talking about the ideas at hand, but defending your own character, which, as Graham said, is super distracting. Often, there’s simply no returning to the topic. It’s just damage control time. And afterward (if you’re like me), you’re regretting how things got overly emotional and promising yourself that you’ll just shut up from now on (which, thankfully, you don’t because you just care too much).

So, this stinks if you want to have a meaningful conversation with someone. By meaningful, I mean a conversation in which there’s agenerous exchange of ideas, which is distinct from an exchange of idea salvos, which is what we see much more often. Even if there are disagreements, the point of such a conversation is not necessarily to win or to keep from losing, but to explore and investigate. To come to a better understanding of each other and of oneself and, hopefully, of the topic at hand.

Joe: Hm—I’ve never thought of it that way before. But what about X?

Kim: Ah, yes, I see how that could be. I wonder if it has something to do with Y. 

Joe: So then are you saying…?

Kim: Oh, no not exactly. What I mean is Z. 

Joe: Fair enough. Personally, I usually find Z a little weird. It doesn’t seem to make sense when you think about A. 

Kim: Ah yes, if A, then Z wouldn’t make much sense. I suppose we’re in different camps on whether A is a thing. I’ll think about that more, though.

Joe: Cool.

A guy can dream can’t he?

The Principle of Charity

I suppose what I’m longing for is generosity in argument, which has to do with the principle of charity. Wikipedia defines it as basically, “interpreting a speaker’s statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation” before subjecting them to evaluation. In other words, a charitable interpretation first tries to understand an argument on its own terms before trying to find holes or fallacies in it.

Put in even another way, Prof. G. Randolph Mayes of Sacramento State University summarizes the principle thusly:

He goes on to clarify: “Of course this formulation works only for people who always want to be interpreted from a logical point of view, and few do. So our Principle of Charity is better stated:  Always interpret the reasoning of others so that it makes the most sense from a logical point of view.”

A couple obstacles to a charitable interpretation in conversation are ad hominem reasoning (as we’ve already mentioned) and straw man reasoning.
  • Straw Man Reasoning

Straw man reasoning misrepresents or “dumbs down” a person’s argument. It’s a fundamentally uncharitable interpretive strategy. Note this example (adapted from

Will: We should put more money into health and education.

Warren: I’m surprised that you hate your country so much that you want to leave it defenseless by cutting military spending.

Warren’s characterization or summary of Will’s argument is uncharitable because it a) assumes that it’s ridiculous and b) makes it into an argument that it really isn’t. If Warren were more charitable in his interpretation, perhaps he would say something more along the lines of:

Warren: Health and education are indeed very important. How would you say we do that? My worry would be that by putting more money into health and education, we’d be taking money away from other important things like, say, national defense and military spending. 

  • Ad Hominem Reasoning

We can easily see too how Warren’s initial response dips its toes into ad hominem reasoning. By implying that Will is a poor citizen (even traitorous), Warren diverts attention in the conversation from the topic at hand (what to do with state money) to Will’s character. Will would have not only to clarify that he isn’t talking about cutting military spending (if he in fact isn’t), but also that he doesn’t hate his country (if he doesn’t), which derails the conversation.

Ad hominem reasoning confuses what a person is saying for what a person is or what he/she does or what his/her motives may be. Here’s another example (similarly adapted from

Sally: …and that’s what would make for a more equitable tax system.

Sam: I’m not sure whether we should believe anything from a woman who isn’t married, was once arrested, and frankly smells a bit weird.

It’s an extreme example, but gets the principle across. Ad hominem consists in, as Mayes puts it, “the inability to separate a reasoner from her reasoning.”

There is of course so much more one could say about these fallacies and about the principle of charity, but I think you get the picture.


The principle of charity is intrinsically tied up in the sorts of group dynamics that Loury is talking about. When someone in a group says something that strays from the consensus, something perceived as maybe challenging that consensus, there are often negative social repercussions. The mental gaze shifts from what the person is saying to the manner of person the speaker must be—ad hominem thinking—uncharitable thinking. And from that come uncharitable conversations. And people get shut down or even shunned, sometimes loudly, sometimes without any fanfare. And people shut up.
Photo used under Creative Commons from carolyntiry


But that’s too bad.

It’s too bad when a consensus opinion becomes immune to dispute or insulated by a narrowing field of acceptable discussion, when the discourse no longer allows for the language of oppositional perspectives, when people feel like they have to shut up or be punished socially.

In my opinion, this isn’t about the supposed human right of free speech. It’s about how people learn to see ideas, and eventually how they learn to see the people who hold them. When a discourse immunizes itself for long enough, it can trend ideological: the spoken or unspoken rules about what can and can’t be said and how can eventually legitimize views of the world that mix truth and falsehood because opposition keeps silent. This is the situation that Loury warns against:

“Conventions of self-censorship are sustained by the utilitarian acquiescence of each community member in an order that, at some level, denies the whole truth: by calculating that the losses from deviation outweigh the gains, individuals are led to conform. … Usually this is a minor matter, more like the small sacrifices we make for the sake of social etiquette than some grand political compromise. But…circumstances arise when far weightier concerns are at stake. … How can we have genuine moral discourse about ambiguous and difficult matters…when the security and comfort of the platitudes lie so readily at hand?”
Loury’s answer seems to demand that  silenced individuals take a stand anyway, but I wonder if there’s room for a more communitarian solution. I want to hope that if a community promotes values of critical thinking, difficult and meaningful conversations can be had more peaceably and charitably; if everyone recognizes the need to critically interrogate himself/herself as well as others, wouldn’t we tend to interpret others as we would like to be interpreted? Ideally, maybe.

Another way to move toward a more generous discourse may simply be honesty. We make a lot of uncharitable statements because of emotion. What if we acknowledged those things upfront? What if we were openly honest with ourselves and what’s going through our minds while we’re talking? This isn’t that far removed from what I mean by critical thinking: what if we interrogated our own motives and emotions and incorporated them into the discourse instead of hiding them behind a rhetoric that we think can obscure or justify them? Nine times out of 10, it probably isn’t successful. People can tell when you’re upset or offended or just being slimy.

To put practice what I’ve just preached: I realize these solutions are socially naive. Maybe naivete is okay once in a while. Maybe to have a meaningful, exploratory discourse, you need a little naivete to break the fourth wall and think beyond one’s own ideas, to discover what questions there are in the first place, and where they lead.

Please share your thoughts on this! What has been your experience re: the big idea of “discourse”, and are there ways we can foster better communication between people who don’t always see things eye to eye?

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