Is Public Discourse Useful?

The 90th birthday of political philosopher Jorgen Habermas has re-ignited a debate that also undergirds a good portion of First Amendment theory.  In an age of increasing polarization and discord, scholars and laypeople are questioning whether discussions can be rational, productive, and socially beneficial.  Habermas articulated a vision of “communicative rationality,” in which discussion leads to greater human understanding and rational insight.  Social and cultural crisis comes when people no longer care about, as one Habermas defender puts it “intergenerational cultural transmission” or reaching understanding with our political and cultural opponents.

Other philosophers and even legal scholars take the position that more speech is not always better, does not lead to better outcomes, and does not make us more rational – because we care more about identity and emotion (or faith) than logic and evidence.  Just look at Brexit, or climate change, they argue – issues where public discourse leads us away from the proper course of action.  Action, some argue, is what is needed right now to alleviate human suffering, and dialog often obscures more than it illuminates.  I recommend you read the highly edifying debate over Habermas and his ideas.  I would like to take the opportunity, fully amenable to discussion myself, to confront some aspects of whether unfettered discourse is or can be beneficial.


First, I must note that those who believe that discourse, even in ideal conditions, doesn’t serve enlightenment seem to believe, without much justification, that their understanding of truth, or of the “right” outcome, is obviously correct.  Granted, Brexit has been a flop, and there is a good degree of scientific consensus that global warming is happening and possibly urgent.  But what to do about these issues is surely debatable – reflecting a mix of empirical questions and subjective moral judgments.  Morality cannot simply reflect the majority of the people – as majorities have often perpetrated horrifically immoral acts.  But morality also is not a cost-benefit analysis.  The role of discourse, to my mind, is to check someone’s moral and political stances to ensure they are not clouded by poor evidence or faulty moral reasoning.  This may, ultimately, allow a society’s collective moral determinations to incorporate subjective moral judgments (is abortion immoral?), empirical evidence (does outlawing abortion result in better health outcomes?), and – in my view what should be the ultimate arbiter – coherent moral reasoning.

As another example, let’s consider the debate over whether to call the Trump Administration’s detention centers, largely confining immigrants from Central America, “concentration camps.”  The reference uses the horrors and genocide of the Holocaust to scathingly criticize President Trump’s often inhumane policies towards migrants and asylum seekers.  It is true that Adolph Hitler did not begin by gassing Jews immediately, and that the term concentration camp has a broader meaning of isolating and detaining persecuted minority groups.  However, it is also true that Jews did not travel to the concentration camps, and that they did not have any choice to leave, generally under any circumstances.  In that sense, invoking the term, especially by those with no connection to the Holocaust, can be viewed as offensive.

When we get consumed by this debate, however, action suffers (and people suffer).  This is likely why some argue that discourse can be “part of the problem.”  Parents remain separated from their children.  President Trump’s policies continue.  The debate, many argue, is a sideshow.   But it need not be a total sideshow.  You can donate to humanitarian causes and elect leaders who represent your views and are willing to make change while debating what I believe is an important rhetorical point.  The reason this point is important is because it manifests other deep disagreements about immigration policy specifically and morality generally that may assist in both understanding and action.

Understanding is different than action.  Indeed, sometimes understanding leads to paralysis (at least, in my experience) because the more you can appreciate the arguments against your position, the less fervently moved you may feel towards action to advance your cause.  Unlike the anti-Habermas crowd, however, I think this is a feature, not a bug.  Unlike ideas, actions have material consequences.  Discussions of Brexit would have been benign without a vote on Brexit.  Perhaps we should spend more time letting ideas percolate before we take action.  This will not lead to the most immediate ends to human suffering, and it often favors the status quo (many opposed to norms of discourse seek radical changes to the status quo).  Sometimes, quick action is needed, especially in response to action.  But more often than not, understanding of others espousing different views should precede action – precisely because ultimate action should reflect public sentiment tempered by evidence, expertise, and coherent moral reasoning.

I am not a populist.  I deplore the racist, fear-mongering, often patently false rhetoric of the populist right.  I am also concerned by the anti-intellectual, often illiberal rhetoric and shaming of the populist left, where corporations are evil, ideas (like market-based capitalism!) are racist, and the classroom can be a place for ideological conformity, not exploration of ideas.  My views about discourse, which temper but amass popular views, reflect my experiences, my personal privileges, and my specific hardships.  But the only way for moral judgments to embrace reasoning that accounts for each person’s experiences, privileges, and hardships is through discourse.  So thank you Jorgen Habermas for being an inspiration for a great discussion on the value of discussion.

[Edit:  If you’re looking for a definition of “coherent moral reasoning,” I define it as such:  One’s own morals have to be internally coherent.  Morality may be subjective, but reason and logic are checks on that subjectivity and improve universality. People often take moral positions that, if thought through, would contradict with other moral positions they take. That requires alternations or refinements, and perhaps more evidence checking, which can check moral thinking.]


One thought on “Is Public Discourse Useful?”

  1. Very interesting, and important. Good question or issue, hell of answers, but just adding one here:

    Mental state. Worth of living. The individual or groups, have their say. They don’t feel that they are subjected to greater powers or forces or ideas, without having their input. Having input, having their say, creates or generates catharsis simply. They are not little fishes, eaten routinely by great sharks. They can protest. They can’t be ignored. Having feelings of being worth something in this world. They can even dream or contemplate all sort of visions, that actually,things can change, would change someday.Things come around, things go around, hope, always stay around.

    This is one per se reason, that makes public discourse useful, even without effective result.



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