Richard Stivers on how the rhetoric of democracy invites tyranny
Sociologist Richard Stivers has been a guest on the Journal on four occasions, the most recent being on Volume 151 discussing his book The Media Creates Us in Its Image and Other Essays on Technology and Culture. On Volume 96, he talked with me about his book The Illusion of Freedom and Equality (State University of New York Press, 2008). The penultimate chapter in that book is titled “The Reality of Freedom and Equality,” in which the following paragraphs appear.
“Freedom and equality are now meaningless terms. When the reality of the quality a term signifies contradicts it, then the term loses common meaning and becomes a tool of power. Richard Weaver uses the phrase ‘charismatic terms’ to denote terms that do not refer to anything in the real world. They have lost their ‘referential connections’; instead their use depends upon ‘common consent’ or the ‘popular will,’ which confers upon them charismatic authority. They become purely rhetorical terms. He suggests that politicians with the assistance of the media impose these terms on the public who more or less willingly accept them without reflecting on the appropriateness of their use. They have become the common coin of propaganda. If one were to expand his discussion to include advertising and public relations, the full range of propaganda would be included. The sad fact is that all organizations, private and public, employ propaganda to influence and control us. They are unwitting agents of the technological system.
“Writing [in The Ethics of Rhetoric] over 50 years ago, Weaver identifies freedom and democracy (equality) as today's charismatic terms. If these terms have been severed from the referential contexts and yet ordinary people still invoke them as often as politicians and administrators, they must mean something. Indeed they have become irrational symbols.
“We can best understand the functioning and meaning of charismatic terms by comparing them to ‘plastic words.’ This is Uwe Poerksen’s term for a category of words that aspire to be scientific or technical but end up amorphous in meaning. Plastic words go from being words in the vernacular to being scientific terms; but subsequently return to the vernacular. Science and technology, economics, administration, and the entire range of applied human sciences are the source of plastic words. He has identified 43 words as plastic words without pretending to having a definitive list [see Plastic Words, Penn State Press, 1995]. These words include: communication, development, education, function, future, growth, information, model, modernization, planning, progress, relationship, trend, and value.
“Plastic words are all abstract nouns and imply an aura of scientific factuality. As abstract nouns, they destroy precise discourse, leaving behind the most general and hollow meaning. Like other abstractions, plastic words are elliptic sentences that imply a predicate. The plastic word ‘planning’ implies a sentence like, ‘One plans for the future.’ Abstractions sometimes turn predicates into substantives (nouns). The result is a world peopled with nouns, a material world closed to human intervention and human qualities. Plastic words as well contain ‘frozen judgments,’ concealed under the aura of science. ‘Progress’ and ‘development’ seem factual and thus neutral, and appear to be a consequence of technological innovation. The frozen judgment here is that technology is our sole hope for the future. Plastic words are tacit symbols that stand for continued technological growth.
“Plastic words are used for propagandistic purposes. They manipulate us to embrace the torturing of the natural environment and to accept the fragmentation and stress technology imposes upon culture and personality. Plastic words ‘provide security and perform exorcisms.’ Experts who talk plastic discourse ‘cast a spell’ of calm in a world buffeted by permanent anxiety.
“If plastic words leave us under the aegis of experts, charismatic terms appear to leave us on our own. They are not owned by experts and flatter us that they are under our control. Charismatic terms are the necessary complement to plastic words. We want to have it both ways — a world in which expert advice rules and a world of democratic participation.
“So what do freedom and equality symbolize if only in an irrational or unconscious way? Charles Weingartner brilliantly concludes that both words symbolize ‘more.’ ‘“Freedom” means more — more latitude in avoiding responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences; “rights” means more — more, better, easier access to largely material comforts if not luxuries, and equality means more access, easier access, to the rights and freedoms that heretofore were privileges.’ His argument [presented in a 1981 article titled ‘Three Little Words,’] is slightly oversimplified, but he is on target with his declaration of the basic American belief: ‘More is better.’ In an interview Philip Rieff, when asked what Americans believe in, responded, ‘More.’”
— from Richard Stivers, The Illusion of Freedom and Equality (State University of New York Press, 2008)
Langdon Winner summarizes a key theme in Jacques Ellul
Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought was published by M.I.T. Press in 1977, and it remains a seminal resource to grasp the cultural and political dynamics active in technological societies. One of the themes that gets some attention is a phenomenon noted by Jacques Ellul, Robert K. Merton, and others whereby technology (in Merton’s words) “transforms ends into means. What was once prized in its own right now becomes worthwhile only if it helps achieve something else. And, conversely, techniques turns means into ends. 'Know-how' takes on an ultimate value.
Winner uses the term “reverse adaptation” to name the process whereby human ends are adjusted to match the character of the available technical means, and “in which people come to accept the norms and standards of technical processes as central to their lives as a whole. A subtle but comprehensive alteration takes place in the form and substance of their thinking and motivation. Efficiency, speed, precise measurement, rationality, productivity, and technical improvement become ends in themselves applied obsessively to areas of life in which they would previously have been rejected as inappropriate. . . .
“There is another important way in which the dominance of instrumental values is insured. . . . [B]eyond the fact that people experience a psychological obsession with instrumentality, the technological society tends to arrange all situations of choice, judgment, or decision in such a way that only instrumental concerns have any true impact. In these situations questions of ‘how’ tend to overpower and retailor questions of ‘why’ so that the two matters become, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable. . . .
Winner goes on to reflect on Ellul’s ideas about the receding of ends and the triumph of means in technological societies. “What causes are responsible for this state of affairs? Ellul argues that the withdrawal of the ends of action into an inert, moribund condition comes at exactly the time when the means of action have become supremely effective. The tendency of all people is to hold the ends constant or to assume that they are well ‘known’ and then to seek the best available techniques to achieve them. There is, then, a twofold movement affecting all social practices and institutions: (1) the process of articulating and criticizing the matter of ends slips into oblivion, and (2) the business of discovering effective means and the ways of judging these means in their performance assumes a paramount importance. Thus, new kinds of apparatus, organization, and technique become the real focus for many important social choices. Instrumental standards appropriate to the evaluation of technological operations — norms of efficiency above all others — determine the form and content of such choices. Locked into an attachment to instruments and instrumentalities, social institutions gradually lose the ability to consider their fundamental commitments.”
Michael Hanby on how the “technological paradigm” flattens our thinking
With a title taken from one of Saint Francis of Assisi’s canticles, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’ was issued in 2015. While many commentators focused on the ecological policies the document endorsed (or seemed to), very little was said about the philosophical and theological foundations of the document.
In an article titled “The Gospel of Creation and the Technocratic Paradigm,” published in the Winter 2015 issue of Communio, Michael Hanby examined some of the more theoretical issues raised by the encyclical. As Hanby notes, Pope Francis identifies a “technocratic paradigm” present in modern thought which defines “the place of human beings and of human action in the world.” The fundamental problem, according to Pope Francis, “is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.”
Hanby argues that this technocratic mentality influences how we strive to know Creation before we launch any projects of manipulation. “This new technological manner of knowing is a knowing-by-doing that ‘takes experience apart and analyzes it,’ in Francis Bacon’s words. That is, it destroys in thought and experiment the unity of experience and the intelligible wholes that comprise it in order to reduce these objects to their simplest components and reconstruct them as the sum of those abstract components and their interactions. This is the meaning of that famous Baconian phrase, ‘knowledge is power.’ It’s not simply that we now know nature for the sake of control; it is rather that we know by means of the various kinds of control we are able to exercise over the phenomena of nature, and the truth of our knowledge is measured by the success of our experiments in predicting, retro-dicting, or manipulating these phenomena.”
Hanby makes it clear that “this control is often undertaken with the best of intent and for noble ends — indeed Bacon himself advances his new science in the name of charity. The imperative to control is not principally a matter of subjective will or intention; rather it is inherent in the structure of scientific cognition and experimental rationality.”
Hanby observes that the technocratic paradigm affects how we regard human nature and the most intimate aspects of human experience. “The so-called sexual revolution, for instance, is most fundamentally the technological revolution turned on ourselves, not only in the deep sense that the canonical dualism of sex and gender presupposes a more basic dualism between the affective part, usually thought to be the locus of personal identity, and a meaningless material body regarded as a kind of artifact, but also in the more mundane sense that the technical conquest of human biology is its practical condition of possibility. Just as ‘same-sex marriage’ would have remained permanently unimaginable were it not for the technological conquest of procreation, so too would it have never been possible to think that a man might ‘really’ be a woman if we did not think it were technologically possible to transform him into one. And yet these technologically generated exceptions have occasioned a radical rethinking of the whole of human nature, sexuality, and embodiment. . . .
“A culture whose very view of reality is technological, with all the assaults on human dignity that inevitably follow, will have every incentive not to think about the profound questions of human existence that for so long animated Western culture. Education will largely consist in learning not to ask them, and so will be scarcely distinguishable from ignorance. But more worrisome still, the inhabitants of such a culture will be unable to think deeply about such questions, because there will be no depths to think about; for they will have already reduced reality to an assemblage of superficial ‘facts’ and thinking to the arrangement and manipulation of those facts. For such a society there would simply be no such thing as a profound question, only problems awaiting technical or managerial solutions. A society whose members are thus unable to think cannot ultimately be a free society, because they can never see beyond and thus transcend the fate which their powers have unleashed. Their only consolation, and this is also their curse, is that they might never know the difference.”
A pdf of Michael Hanby’s article is available here.
Rochelle Gurstein on the loss of “principled debate about the quality and character of our common world”
“'The activity of taste,’ Hannah Arendt once observed, ‘decides how this world, independent of its utility and our vital interests in it, is to look and sound, what men will see and what they will hear in it.’ In our own time, however, taste has no public resonance at all; rather, it has been drastically reduced to mean little more than individual whim or consumer preference. In consequence, judgments about which things should appear in public, speculation about the common good, as well as deliberation about moral and aesthetic matters, have increasingly been relegated to the obscurity of the private realm, leaving everyone to his or her own devices. And in the absence of considered debate about the meaning of democracy, freedom, equality, and justice, or about the good, the beautiful, and the true, the public sphere has degenerated into a stage for sensational displays of matters that people formerly would have considered unfit for public appearance.
“It has become a cliché to notice that our common world is flooded with lurid descriptions, representations, and images of sex and violence. And it is not just the old culprits — movies, television, radio, journalism, best-sellers, advertising, rock and roll, and, more recently, rap music — that shamelessly exploit these subjects. Sex in its most obscene form — pornography — now appears in the most unlikely public places: not only is it an unregulated, multibillion-dollar industry, it has also become a litmus test of the First Amendment, a badge of sexual liberation, a tried-and-true strategy of ‘advanced’ artists, a divisive feminist issue, and the subject of serious academic study.
“The other remarkable quality of our common domain is its sheer triviality: we are persistently bombarded by reports of people’s most intimate affairs by way of celebrity gossip and human-interest stories, confessional talkshows and soul-baring interviews, and by omnipresent television series and movies that treat the most banal incidents of ordinary life with the utmost gravity. Our public sphere, which should have displayed and preserved the grandeur and beauty of our civic ideals and moral excellences, is instead inane and vacuous when it is not utterly mean, ugly, or indecent.
“To render this judgment, so plain to common sense, is to invite the inevitable charge of elitism. For, in contemporary America, to judge at all is to be ‘judgmental.’ To hold out the hope that commercial entertainment might occasionally rise above a puerile, sniggering adolescent level, for instance, is evidence of snobbery or, worse yet, of attempting to inculcate middle-class or ‘highbrow’ values in others. Critics are scolded time after time: ‘No one is forcing you to consume popular culture, but don't interfere with others who have a right to do as they please and are entitled to their tastes.’ It is a sign of our time that this ready-made plea for freedom of choice, and the dismissal of standards as a form of cultural imperialism, is automatically offered not only on behalf of commercial entertainment but also for obscene art and pornography; and it is offered with equal gusto by Hollywood, Broadway, and Madison Avenue as well as by postmodern academics, liberal arts administrators, ‘advanced’ artists, record companies, and First Amendment lawyers. . . .
“[T]o raise objections to so-called free expression — no matter how graphically violent, sexually explicit, perverse, or morbid — is to invite the epithet ‘puritan.’ On the one hand, objections to the moral content of flagrantly obscene images are interpreted as a lack of aesthetic sophistication; on the other, they are treated as a squeamish refusal to confront reality in all its variety and intractability. In the logic that rules this argument, the next move is inevitable: to question the value of the work of any self-proclaimed artist is to endorse censorship, and censorship is the first step toward fascism. . . . ”
“With the powerful weapons of rights-talk and personal ridicule at the command of all forward-looking people today, anyone who tries to criticize anything that can be formulated as a free-speech issue — and free speech has been so overextended that it now encompasses not only pornography but cross-burning — is forced to acquit himself or herself of these charges in advance. This is impossible, of course, since to be critical of these liberal pieties is to be a self-confessed traitor to the liberal cause. All this results in the interminable quality and fruitlessness of our most important controversies over our public life. If we are ever to move beyond these stalemates, we shall need to pose a more fundamental question: How and why have puritan-baiting, which focuses narrowly on a person’s alleged sexual liberation or aesthetic sophistication, and rights talk, which makes the individual right to free expression the only issue, displaced principled debate about the quality and character of our common world?
“[W]e no longer understand debates about the things that occupy our common space as matters of taste and judgment susceptible to public deliberation and speculation. Instead, when they are not simply banished to the private sphere of ‘lifestyle’ choice, they are formulated as legal disputes, in which courts balance and weigh the relative rights and interests of the individual against those of society. This resort to the law has made it impossible to address many vital issues that fall outside its narrow precincts, and thus urgent differences over political, moral, and aesthetic matters are all but impossible to articulate. . . . The faculties of taste and judgment — along with the sense of the sacred and the shameful — have become utterly vacant; yet, without them, it is now clear that disputes about the character of our common world can only be trivial, if not altogether meaningless.”
— from The Repeal of Reticence: A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art (Hill & Wang, 1996)
Agnes Repplier recalls the knowledge that mattered most in her childhood
Agnes Repplier (1855–1950) was (in historian John Lukacs’s words) the “Jane Austen of the essay.” In his judgment, “not only the quality but the quantity of her knowledge was, and remains, stunning.” Though she was a life-long resident of Philadelphia, many of her essays (which numbered about 400) were published in Boston’s Atlantic Monthly, and later collected in anthologies. The 1916 volume Counter-Currents included an essay titled “The Repeal of Reticence,” in which she criticized the craze for “scientific” sex education for children. This essay lent its title to a 1996 book by cultural historian Rochelle Gurstein, who was interviewed on Volume 24 of the MARS HILL Tapes. Below are some excerpts from Miss Repplier’s essay.
“Knowledge is the cry. Crude, undigested knowledge, without limit and without reserve. Give it to boys, give it to girls, give it to children. No other force is taken into account by the visionaries who — in defiance, or in ignorance, of history — believe that evil understood is evil conquered. . . .
“Dr. Edward L. Keyes advocates the teaching of sex-hygiene to children, because he thinks it is of the kind of information that children are eagerly seeking. ‘What is this topic,’ he asks, ‘that all these little ones are questioning over, mulling over, fidgeting over, imagining over, worrying over ? Ask your own memories.’
“I do ask my memory in vain for the answer Dr. Keyes anticipates. A child’s life is so full, and everything that enters it seems of supreme importance. I fidgeted over my hair, which would not curl. I worried over my examples, which never came out right. I mulled (though unacquainted with the word) over every piece of sewing put into my incapable fingers, which could not be trained to hold a needle. I imagined I was stolen by brigands, and became — by virtue of beauty and intelligence — spouse of a patriotic outlaw in a frontierless land. I asked artless questions which brought me into discredit with my teachers, as, for example, who ‘massacred’ St. Bartholomew. But vital facts, the great laws of propagation, were matters of but casual concern, crowded out of my life, and out of my companions’ lives (in a convent boarding-school) by the more stirring happenings of every day. How could we fidget over obstetrics when we were learning to skate, and our very dreams were a medley of ice and bumps? How could we worry over ‘natural laws’ in the face of a tyrannical interdict which lessened our chances of breaking our necks by forbidding us to coast down a hill covered with trees? The children to be pitied, the children whose minds become infected with unwholesome curiosity, are those who lack cheerful recreation, religious teaching, and the fine corrective of work. A playground swimming-pool will do more to keep them mentally and morally sound than scores of lectures upon sex-hygiene.
“The point of view of the older generation was not altogether the futile thing it seems to the progressive of to-day. It assumed that children brought up in honour and goodness, children disciplined into some measure of self-restraint, and taught very plainly the difference between right and wrong in matters childish and seasonable, were in no supreme danger from the gradual and somewhat haphazard expansion of knowledge. It unconsciously reversed the adage, ‘Forewarned, forearmed,’ into ‘Forearmed, forewarned’; paying more heed to the arming than to the warning. . . .
“If knowledge alone could save us from sin, the salvation of the world would be easy work. If by demonstrating the injuriousness of evil, we could insure the acceptance of good, a little logic would redeem mankind. But the laying of the foundation of law and order in the mind, the building up of character which will be strong enough to reject both folly and vice, this is no facile task. The justifiable reliance placed by our fathers upon religion and discipline has given place to a reliance upon understanding. It is assumed that youth will abstain from wrong-doing, if only the physical consequences of wrong-doing are made sufficiently clear. There are those who believe that a regard for future generations is a powerful deterrent from immorality, that boys and girls can be so interested in the quality of the baby to be born in 1990 that they will master their wayward impulses for its sake. What does not seem to occur to us is that this deep sense of obligation to ourselves and to our fellow creatures is the fruit of self-control. A course of lectures will not instil self-control into the human heart. It is born of childish virtues acquired in childhood, youthful virtues acquired in youth, and a wholesome preoccupation with the activities of life which gives young people something to think about besides the sexual relations which are pressed so relentlessly upon their attention.
“The is world is wide, and a great deal is happening in it. I do not plead for ignorance, but for the gradual and harmonious broadening of the field of knowledge, and for a more careful consideration of ways and means. There are subjects which may be taught in class, and subjects which commend themselves to individual teaching. There are topics which admit of plein-air handling, and topics which civilized man, as apart from his artless brother of the jungles, has veiled with reticence. There are truths which may be, and should be, privately imparted by a father, a mother, a family doctor, or an experienced teacher; but which young people cannot advantageously acquire from the platform, the stage, the moving-picture gallery, the novel, or the ubiquitous monthly magazine.”