What Ails Our Discourse? Part Two

By David Ottlinger

In my last essay, I made use of Glenn Loury’s work in exploring possible explanations for our polarized and partisan discourse. [1] I suggested that his work might help explain how society divides into distinct communities of discourse, each exhibiting a natural tendency to suppress their moderates, such that only the most uncompromising tend to remain. I suggested that this picture of discourse and social censorship improves on the one proposed by Mill, which posited a monolithic culture that suppresses novelty. While the last piece was concerned primarily with the possible causes and logic of our current state of affairs, this one will focus on the potential effects. As promised, I will draw heavily from the work of philosopher Philip Kitcher, [2] who has been writing about our political state with an increasing sense of alarm, one that I will argue is quite legitimate.

Social censorship occurs when members of a polity suppress speech by imposing a social cost on those who engage in speech deemed impermissible. Such a cost may be imposed in the form of ostracism, loss of opportunity, verbal abuse and other such means. This is a purely social phenomenon, in the sense that it involves no state actors or any kind of legal mechanism. Nonetheless, it deserves to be called censorship, insofar as it has the effect of compelling silence.

Loury’s account of social censorship begins with the idea of communities and the shared values that give them cohesion. It is assumed that communities will have some incentive to exclude those who do not share their values. Accordingly, when a person speaks in ways that offend or do not clearly uphold community values, that person risks his or her standing in the community. Every hearer then has to judge why the “offensive” speaker would take such a risk and has reason to suspect that the speaker does not really share the values of the community. Otherwise why take the risk? Why defend a communist? What did this person really mean by “everyone is entitled to a fair trial”? How committed is this person to our capitalist democracy anyhow?

My small innovation was to suggest that within our polity are “communities of discourse,” which have no spatial location and whose members are dispersed through a larger population, but can nonetheless be thought of as coherent and distinct. People living right next to each other separate themselves into different “communities.” Liberal papers, magazines, and television programs, along with their readers, viewers and the intellectuals who publish in them, form one community of discourse. Conservative publications, intellectuals and readership form another community. Each group is joined by common moral and political values and attempts to support the discourse needed to put these values into action. Thus, those in the liberal community who offer qualified, moderate or compromised versions of liberal views may be shunned for not really sharing liberal values.  The same goes for conservatives. And though I will be focusing mainly on liberals and conservatives, the same mechanism applies for many other groups, as well. [3] As each enforces on itself this kind of winnowing, what is left are extreme, uncompromising arguments and balefully little in between.

Philip Kitcher offers a similar diagnosis. A veteran of both the creationist and climate-denial fight and a philosopher of science, he is no stranger to polarized, dysfunctional discourse. Informed by such experience, he describes the landscape of our political discourse as “fragmented.” [4] Each “fragment,” Kitcher observes, seems to have its own tailor made media. Media “entrepreneurs,” as Kitcher calls them, set out to make a profit by presenting readers and viewers with a picture of the world as they would want to see it. The eventual result is that “the market can be fragmented according to groups with particular evidential conceptions, so that each is supplied with sources of information that resonate with prior beliefs and commitments.” [5] Each group has certain views. Each group naturally favors sources of opinion and information that reinforce these views. Accordingly, each group presents “entrepreneurs” with an opportunity to earn a profit, by creating a system of media that flatters and reinforces the beliefs of the given group. This is perhaps the genesis of what I called “communities of discourse.” Certain outlets become central to these communities. Intellectuals seek to publish in them. Rank and file community members read or view them, take their opinion from them, use them as sources of information. Eventually, like-minded readers, viewers and intellectuals are bound together.

Loury’s work suggests a different and, I think, more sympathetic origin story. Instead of shrewd, opportunistic media barons establishing what amounts to propaganda machines, Loury describes how a community acting in good faith and on genuine motives can come to suppress the truth. According to Loury’s central argument, communities form around shared values and then, reacting to certain incentives, become naturally distrustful of those within the community who hold more moderate views. Loury expounds how this can lead to the phenomenon of “forbidden facts.” [6] As re-capped above, on Loury’s account those who do not clearly affirm community values in their speech are judged by the hearer to be prima facie suspect. One way to unambiguously fail to affirm the values of a given community is to insist on facts that may complicate the values and commitments or jeopardize the political aims, constitutive of that community. Accordingly, the utterance of these complicating facts is often suppressed by a community, not because someone is dishonestly seeking to sell someone something, but because members of the community, who genuinely embrace certain values, find these facts too risky to disseminate. Of course, every social phenomenon has a multiplicity of causes, and it is likely that both stories have their element of truth. As Nietzsche said (somewhere), nothing with a history can ever be fully understood.

What would be the result of such social divisions (however they come about)? Kitcher argues that we are plunged into “irremediable ignorance.” [7] Of course, we are all necessarily ignorant of many things, but ordinarily, such ignorance can be remedied. Kitcher argues that we can go about remedying our ignorance “directly” or “indirectly.” Once we wish to seek out some piece of information, we can go about finding it in various ways. We remedy ignorance “directly,” when we do research and seek information ourselves. But any person can do this for only a very select range of topics. I would be helpless to establish any matter of fact in the domain of astrophysics by trying to research and read professional papers. On most subjects, consequently, we have to remedy our ignorance “indirectly,” by way of the testimony of experts.

This should be a simple matter. If we want to know something about astrophysics, we seek out an astrophysicist. If we want to understand the impact of a given policy, we seek out a political scientist. But what if we are unable to identify experts? We have to rely on credentials and the testimony of others. But when we are faced with different families of media that advance very different opinions on who counts as an expert, things can get murky. Clearly, many people are in this position with regard to climate change. A number of media outlets treat climate scientists as the relevant experts and the only relevant experts, while others treat climate scientists as frauds, insisting on their own theories to further their own ideological agenda and acquire funding. Still others present climate scientists and climate “skeptics” as having more or less equal standing. In such an environment, it is very challenging for ordinary people to decide to which purported expert, if any, they should give credence. A person lacking the relevant expertise thus has no way of finding the information they seek. Because they cannot seek the information themselves they have no “direct” route to it, and because they cannot identify an expert as trustworthy, they cannot find the desired information “indirectly,” by means of expert testimony.

Most people I know have convinced themselves — I think rightly — that climate change is a real phenomenon, attested to by a consensus of the relevant experts. But it would be unwise to think of irremediable ignorance as something that only impairs the thinking of others. I spent the better part of the first half of my undergraduate career establishing (and documenting) my incompetence in the field of economics. I have no reason to think I have improved since, but as a voting citizen, I feel obligated to try to understand some basic facts about the economy and how certain policies would affect it. Accordingly, I try to read the papers. Not infrequently, I’ll read in one paper that some policy would require massive government expansion and could be achieved only at great cost to the taxpayer and in another that the increase in spending required would be relatively modest and that, factoring in certain cuts elsewhere, it might even be a boon to the country. I know perfectly well that the first paper has a conservative bent and the latter a liberal one. I then have to weigh these two sources of information. There are always judgment calls when dealing with something as complicated as national domestic policy, but what I want to get clear on are the facts of the matter, as opposed to peoples’ moral or political convictions. For experts, determining the truth on this point of policy should be relatively unaffected by prior political and ideological holdings. And yet, I read two experts who arrive at completely opposed conclusions. I could consider that the matter is controversial and that experts may simply disagree. Why, then, did the expert in the liberal paper and the expert in the conservative paper both arrive at conclusions preferable to them, given their own prior ideological commitments? I am left with the strong suspicion that both experts are allowing their case to be colored but their own values and political aims. And this situation is further compounded when both sides, as often happens, claim to be speaking on behalf of the expert consensus.

What ignorance counts as “remediable” and “irremediable” is driven, in part (as I am sure Kitcher would agree), by pragmatic concerns. I have a hard enough time establishing what is the case and I am a relatively educated and attentive person with considerable time to devote to civic duties. I can’t imagine what I would do if I had a high school education and were working two jobs. As long as remedying one’s ignorance means having to go to multiple sources, compare them, weigh their potential biases and discern what information can be trusted in each source, it will be a remedy few will have the time and inclination to apply. Accordingly, ignorance will increase as the time and education of voters decrease.

The short and blunt way to put it is that in a balkanized discourse such as ours, it is hard to know anything. In order to acquire knowledge on most subjects and on subjects most salient to our democratic responsibilities, we must rely on experts. To rely on experts, we must be able to identify experts. But when our discourse is broken down into multiple communities, each with their own political agenda, it is remarkably hard to establish who the experts are and when they should be trusted. Knowledge is (usually) a social phenomenon and rests on our having certain social relationships of trust. When those relationships fail, we are unable rely on each other in the ways necessary to gain knowledge. This represents a massive failure of our political discourse.

There are, perhaps, some rays of hope. The problem of irremediable ignorance assumes that we look to our own communities of discourse for information. This need not be. Our ignorance remains irremediable only so long as the only sources of information are affiliated with one community of discourse or another. We may be able to achieve a state of affairs in which we retain separate communities of discourse for matters of opinion but look outside our communities of discourse for matters of fact. Thus, liberals and conservatives would read their own editorials and journals of opinion, but look to some source affiliated with neither community for the purpose of acquiring facts. Kitcher is downbeat about the possibility of establishing such independent institutions for the simple reason that both communities of discourse will have a vested interest in undermining the independent institution, when it produces facts that might jeopardize their political aims. [8] If the independent source reports that climate change is occurring and is man-made, conservative outlets will likely go about attempting to expose — or invent — the independent source’s hidden liberal agenda. If the same source finds that in certain cases, affirmative action may do more harm than good to a disadvantaged population, liberal outlets may go about exposing — or inventing — the implicit racist assumptions of the independent source’s research. Nonetheless, it may be possible to cut through such attacks and restore some trust with the public. As people grow weary of the political game of each side smearing the other (as I think there are some signs that they are), they might be less willing to go along with familiar ad hominem rhetoric. In such difficult times, such an endeavor seems worth trying.

At any rate, something must be tried. I believe Prof. Kitcher is absolutely correct in arguing that the state of our political discourse threatens the future of our democracy. Between the two of them, Prof. Loury and Prof. Kitcher paint a disturbing picture of a public unable to understand and confront, let alone deal with its problems. Prof. Kitcher responds to this picture by writing, “The best solution to the problems of democracy is, I believe, more democracy.” [9] I could not agree more. But the democracy we return to must be a very different kind of democracy than the one we have been practicing for the past several decades. Once again, I find that we must return to the values of individual autonomy and judgment, the values of Locke, Milton and Mill. We, many of us, have grown too complacent in uncritically accepting a view of the world fed to us by the organs of thought with which we already agree. What is need is a more suspicious, careful and independent citizenry. It cannot come soon enough.


[1] http://theelectricagora.com/2016/02/26/what-ails-our-discourse/

Prof. Loury’s paper:

Loury, Glenn C. “Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of ‘Political Correctness’ and Related Phenomena.” Rationality and Society 6 (October 1994): 428–61

References to Mill concern his On Liberty, available online:


[2] The relevant papers:

Kitcher, Philip (2006). Public knowledge and the difficulties of democracy. Social Research: An International Quarterly 73 (4):1205-1224.

Kitcher, Philip (2010). Varieties of freedom and their distribution. Social Research: An International Quarterly 77 (3):857-872.

Kitcher, Philip (2011). Public Knowledge and Its Discontents. Theory and Research in Education 9 (2): 103-124

[3] One small example might be the echo chamber that is the skeptic/atheist community and it’s rage against “accomodationists”, meaning essentially anyone who acknowledges anything positive in religion or any kind of détente between atheists and believers. Poor, intrepid, stoic Massimo Pigliucci has just been through another particularly ugly spat with the hardliners which exemplifies this dynamic.



The hardliners:



[4] See especially Kitcher, 2006 1219-1220

[5] Ibid.

[6] Loury, 26-29

[7] Kitcher, 2010 861

[8] Kitcher,, 2011 122

[9] Ibid. Cf. Kitcher, 2010 870






24 responses to “What Ails Our Discourse? Part Two”

  1. I have a copy of Public knowledge and the difficulties of democracy, but would like to be able to read the other two Kitcher papers. Any way to do that? hal@panix.com

  2. brodix


    Maybe looking at the other side of the equation might help; What holds a community, especially a large one, together? Which, quite logically and evidently, is economic progress. It is only when the hope of future success becomes diminished, that people turn to subgroups as more viable alternatives.

    Not that this problem can be easily addressed, but it should be kept in mind.

    Unfortunately, it is in the interests of those with the greatest advantages to steer the resulting conflicts in ways which serve their needs and so often actual problems are not addressed, only fingers pointed at useful scapegoats.

    For example, what ties the global economy together is the financial system, that serves to efficiently transfer value around the system and the basis of this essentially contractual device, is public debt. In that every asset has to be backed by a reputable obligation and national governments are assumed to be the most trustworthy debtors. Consequently it is in the interests of the system to create as much debt as possible, but how often do politicians rail against government debt? It is fake.

    Which is not to say that governments shouldn’t spend more than they can reasonably expect to pay back, but that would also mean a much more constrained financial system than we have today.

    For instance, budgeting is to set priorities and spend according to ability, but that is not how the Federal government does it. There the legislature puts together enormous bills, adds enough goodies to get sufficient votes, which the president can only pass or veto. If necessary, the veto can be overridden, because enough interests are at stake.

    Now if they really wanted to budget, rather than the old line item veto, which would never pass, as it would essentially eliminate much of congress’s power, they could break these bills into their various items, have every legislator assign a percentage value to each item and then re-assemble them in order of preference. Then the president would draw the line at what would be funded.

    Not only would this keep power divided, but would force congress to prioritize and focus the responsibility of amount of spending on the president. As Harry Truman would have put it; The buck stops here.

    Now this would significantly reduce the amounts of money which could be circulated, but large amounts are basically being stored as notational wealth and there are problems with that.

    Money really functions as an enormous voucher system and too many excess vouchers are destructive to such devices, but as money functions as quantified hope for much of the population, having large amounts in circulation is an effective political strategy to keep people happy. The issue is how to keep it stored and not loose, where it would create inflation.

    The last time there was notable inflation was in the late 70’s and it was supposedly cured with higher rates and thus less entering the economy. The problem was this also reduced economic activity and the consequent need for money.

    Inflation was finally brought under control in the early 80’s. Now one main method of raising rates is for the Federal Reserve to sell government debt it is holding and retire the money, but by the early 80’s the federal deficit had ballooned to over 200 billion and that was real money in those days.

    So what is the difference between the Fed selling debt and the Treasury issuing fresh debt? To tell the truth, the money the Treasury collects is much more effective, because it can be spent in ways to support and expand the private sector and thus the need for money, but which isn’t otherwise profitable. Aka Keynesian pump priming.

    Now consider that if the government sells bonds, who buys them? Those with excess money.

    What if, instead of borrowing this money, which only really kicks the can down the road, it was to threaten to tax it back out of the economy?

    Most people save money for specific needs, from raising children, to housing, starting businesses, healthcare, retirement, etc.

    So if they were to figure out other ways to store wealth, than as notational devices, they would need to invest directly into these social needs, but since specific future needs cannot be exactly known, this would require more investment into public functions and public spaces. Otherwise known as “The Commons.”

    So rather than every aspect of society and the environment being treated as a resource to be mined for notational value, which is then siphoned off, by governments, financial institutions and large companies, they would become stores of value, as stronger communities and healthier environments.

    There was a time when government, as the central nervous system of society, was a private function, aka monarchy. Yet when its costs significantly outgrew its services, government had to be turned into a public trust. Similarly, the financial system functions as society’s circulation system and turning into a public function appears increasingly necessary.

    Now this might seem as if it goes far beyond the focus of the essay, but people do function best as smaller groups, where they can get a general sense of their community and while nationalization and globalization has its uses, it still has to rest on the foundation of healthy local communities. So if these local systems can redesigned to be organically whole, then they can be units in a larger social ecosystem.

    Just some thoughts on where to go, after the coming economic coronary.

  3. David

    Again, lucid and balanced. Again, I am left wondering where – in more concrete terms – this is leading.

    Yes, knowledge is largely a social phenomenon but I’m not sure I agree entirely with your analysis.

    “We remedy ignorance “directly,” when we do research and seek information ourselves. But any person can do this for only a very select range of topics. I would be helpless to establish any matter of fact in the domain of astrophysics by trying to research and read professional papers. On most subjects, consequently, we have to remedy our ignorance “indirectly,” by way of the testimony of experts.”

    One point I want to make is that we can test many of the claims and predictions we hear from the media just by watching what happens to our societies, economies, etc. over time. The stock market crashes – or doesn’t. Inflation strikes – or doesn’t. Iraq embraces democracy – or doesn’t. Even if we only read, say, right-wing news sources, we still get to judge how well the predictions of their experts stood up.

    Agreed, facts are different from predictions. But often facts are only significant to the extent that they play into some broader ideological story (which involves predictions).

    When it all pans out as projected, our trust is reinforced. When it doesn’t, our trust in that particular source is weakened.

    People can and often do think for themselves, and the media is arguably little more than a side-show. Most people (I believe) are fully aware of this and take it for what it is (in large part, though not entirely, entertainment.)

    Moreover, if it is the case that politics is less driven – and less susceptible to being driven – by the sorts of things you are focussing on (i.e. reasoned debate in public forums) than you are suggesting, then an alternative analysis may be more useful as a basis for effective action.

  4. nannus

    Perhaps the internet is aggravating the trends you are describing since it allows people who are geographically dispersed to form groups, meet in virtual places and thus form “echo chambers” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echo_chamber_(media)). While among your neighbours, colleagues etc .you might still meet people with different opinions, the internet allows you to spend a lot of time among people with similar oppinions, and devices like smart phones allow you to spend more and more time inside such virtual communities. So the internet might promote a radicalization of people and the break up of societies into groups that are at odds with each other.

  5. Hal,

    Let me look into that.


    I’m not as convinced as you are that discourse is as strongly tied to economic progress as you suggest. By many accounts the press and public discourse were healthier during the economic unrest of the progressive era and even the great depression than it is now (but I am still doing research). At any rate we can assume we, as a polity, will eventually run into economic difficulty so we must have a discourse that can survive economic pressure.


    Thanks again for the kind words.
    “we can test many of the claims and predictions we hear from the media just by watching what happens to our societies, economies, etc.”
    Oh my no. Evaluating the success or failure of a social theory is way too complicated for ordinary members of the public (including me!) to undertake under normal circumstances. As phil-science teaches us, theories are not confirmed or disconfirmed they fit the evidence better and worse and the quality of the fit to the available evidence is always a complicated debate. Different theorists will credibly believe their theory is the best fit to the evidence and the debate between them will be quite complex. An ideologically motivated media can essentially “pick” a narrative if it feels so inclined and emphasize all the problems with one interpretation and all the advantages of the other.

    “People can and often do think for themselves, and the media is arguably little more than a side-show.”
    I really think this is just a mistake. Conservative media (talk radio and web shows) have done a lot to foment the conservative base.
    A good article on the subject.


    I think you are absolutely right and I may write something along those lines. In the meantime here is a good summary of some research which expands upon your point.

  6. brodix


    I don’t think it is just economic process, but a deeper dynamic which sustains a particular model. Simply that when everyone sees more advantage to being part of the group, than going their separate way, the group is more likely to remain whole. It is just the nature of the beast that the United States has essentially had the capacity to grow for four hundred years. First geographically, then industrially and now for the last forty, using stored credit. I don’t include the information age as part of this, as it has been as much a tool to create divisions as connections and has eliminated as many or far more ground level means of work, as it has produced among the more technically literate.

    As I tend to say about life in general, its like riding a bicycle, you keep moving forward, or you fall over.

    If you go back to the ancients, the basic premise of a deity was often the group, or tribal spirit and people were organically part of that whole, whereas other groups were therefore other beings. Religion sustained this cultural homogeneity with essential frames, such as religious canons. As well as more basic group networking, such as a common language and common currencies. Over time, though, the Tower of Babel effect sets in and people start going different directions, living in geographically separate areas, etc and those bonds are stretched and broken.

    So what binds people together isn’t just a common source, but a common goal. My point is that today, much of that larger goal of happiness, success, etc, has been monetized and now way too many people are counting on these quanta of stored hope, aka “savings,” than the system can fulfill. In which case, we need to go back to the basics and the basis, which is each other. As public debt, money is promises from every citizen of the nation issuing that debt, to the holder of that obligation/money.

    While it has served to isolate, atomize and quantize our lives, it also serves as a model for how we do actually work together, if we can publicly acknowledge how it works, which information would not be to the benefit of those currently controlling this mechanism.

    Money is a contract, not just a commodity. We treat it as both medium of exchange and store of value, but in our bodies, the medium is blood and the store is fat.

  7. David

    “Evaluating the success or failure of a social theory is way too complicated for ordinary members of the public (including me!) to undertake under normal circumstances.”

    I said we could test many claims and predictions – and we can. And I said that failed predictions tend to undermine credibility. And so they do. Sure, failed predictions can be spun in certain ways to save the core features of an ideology. I didn’t say any of this was straightforward. In fact, I emphasized that facts are integrated into ideological structures from which they derive their significance.

    All I was saying really was that (most) people are not complete idiots and are often quite capable of drawing their own conclusions about specific questions. (On the effectiveness of the interventionist policies of the neo-cons, for example?)

    I agree that the media influences public opinion. But I’m not sure what I’m supposed to learn from the piece you linked to. It’s certainly not research. It’s a polemical piece. And this is fine. I’ve got no problem with polemics. But I thought you were advocating some other kind of road.

    I’m still struggling to figure out where you are going exactly. You don’t like Trump. (Nor do I.) You seem to be suggesting that his success is due to irresponsible right-wing commentators. I don’t necessarily agree. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume this is true. What can you do about it? You are not suggesting censorship via legislation, I take it.

  8. David,

    Once again, I find the essay interesting, and agree with the diagnosis. But once again I find myself asking, where are we to go with this?

    Your essay ends with sentences deploying phrases like the following:

    “the democracy we return to”

    “I find that we must return to”

    “What is need(ed) is”

    I’m reminded of the *countless* essays I have read over the past 45 years that have deployed phrases like these concerning hopes of political, social, or economic reform. Not a single one of those essays actually contributed to political, social, or economic change.

    I think it was maybe the late ’90s, when I was reading an essay that what insisting that ‘we need to do (x).’ when I suddenly realized: ‘no, we don’t *need* to do anything – it might be good to do (x); but since we don’t need to do it, and most people seem not inclined to do it, well, so it goes.’

    Around that time I had another unhappy insight, into the nature of ‘the crisis of contemporary capitalism.’ There is no crisis of contemporary capitalism. Workers get screwed, lose their jobs, suffer in poverty – and that’s exactly what is needed to keep capitalism working. So was the recession of ’08, and the lame attempts at amelioration. Unemployment is built into the system; poverty is built into the system; uncertainty is built into the system. Social injustice is part of the American economy. Some use race to leverage this injustice, some gender, some age, some class, some education – but some prejudice must be formed and deployed to leverage injustice in the system, because the injustice is a necessary function of the system. One can no more imagine a capitalist economy without social injustice than one can imagine a species of tree without bark.

    That means that social injustice cannot be corrected by sweeping movements without actual revolution; it has to be corrected incrementally, on a case by case basis, even where the case involves collectives. John L. Lewis, when asked why he was not a communist, replied (paraphrasing from memory), ‘Communists want utopia; I just want to make things better.”

    It is a core problem with Social Justice Warriors – and scientisimists, and religious zealots, and the Tea Partiers, etc. – that they honestly believe that if we all just get together and get our heads right, the world will spin in the desired direction.

    That’s not true, and it’s not how history happens.

    I’m not accusing you of utopianism; yet I fear you’re engaging in wishful thinking.

    Read Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” King uses “we must” phraseology in only one paragraph, and it is *not* a call to social change, but a moral directive to those who already agree with his basic project. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

    There’s no point in asking people to change. They have to want to change. Americans are unhappy; but they do not want to change. That’s the real problem here.

  9. Hi David, this was another nice essay on the problems of discourse.

    While I agree that Kitcher’s idea about the cause may not be correct (or at least not the full explanation), I would share Kitcher’s skepticism that there could be a third (neutral) information source. Government agencies were supposed to be that very thing, and they are largely crippled by political interests. The closest thing we have outside of that is arguably private, grass-roots efforts at knowledge-storage like Wikipedia, but even there it is only useful for the type of people that are interested in the information it gives. If something does not fit within someone’s ideology, it becomes contested at the site or those people dismiss Wikipedia as having a bias.

    Your specific point about not being able to figure out who counts as an expert on a subject is really important. The open media of the internet, and the closed (owned) media of commercial infotainment, has elevated mere opinion to the level of expert analysis, while reducing expert analysis to mere opinion.

    Hmmmm. Perhaps a Wittgensteinian can tell me… if the idea is that individuals cannot have a private language because they will not have external checks (so any rule goes), is it possible that societies themselves can lose their public language (or at least knowledge-building) by refusal to admit external checks of some sort (any rule goes)? Put another way, with enough fragmentation and reduction to political signaling in communication can a public become like an individual with respect to language?

  10. brodix


    Change is very much coming, whether people want it or not, as the current capitalist system has decided that business cycles don’t apply to the financial sector and has created an enormous bubble of unsustainable notional value, to perpetuate the system.

    The solution is not “socialism,” but a better understanding of how monetary systems actually function. A field of study that has been deliberately obscured by those who benefit by their control over this economic “black box.” As my father, an old cattle auctioneer and horse trader put it, “You can’t starve a profit.” Yet those running things think the system will continue to function, even if they drain every possible quanta of value out of everything and expect everyone to simply borrow the money back to buy things and keep it going.

    Succeeding generations are increasingly being taxed through financial obligations, public debt, student loans, higher housing costs, etc, as the health of the system they are being given is also being drained. That is very much the recipe for revolution, or simply societal collapse, if no alternative is agreed on. So, yes, “can’t we all just get along,” is not going to resolve the issue.

  11. David,

    Please try to be patient with Mark and EJ, since each of us also desire their patience. I’m sure they’ve seen plenty of young and hopeful people in the past, and I suspect that they weren’t any different in their youths.

    You’ve detailed a horrible problem, though I must agree with them that a potential solution was not provided. But isn’t it enough that you’ve demonstrated the problem itself? This is exactly what I’m looking for — hopeful people who are able to understand the nature of our problems. People such as you should have somewhat more potential to comprehend my own proposed solutions.

    We’re talking about ways to foster objectivity, but what technically is the problem? We mean that there is good and bad which seems to conflict for separate subjects, which also tends to skew their perspectives in associated ways. So how do we gain more objective perspectives from which to better lead our lives and structure our societies, given that each subject must naturally be subjective? A fundamental sort of dilemma! I suggest that a discipline be created to theorize the dynamics of good/bad existence itself.

    This would be perfectly subject oriented, and thus there would be no disputes regarding objectivity — the good of a given subject would be just that regardless of how others happen to be affected. Observe that this wouldn’t simply address individuals, since social dynamics could be contemplated in this manner as well. If the subject happens to be the people of America, or the dogs of Japan, or whatever else, then the issue would be defined by the good/bad welfare of it as a whole.

    Then secondly, this discipline would be perfectly amoral. If nobody believes that something is bad for a given subject, and thus doing this is not technically “immoral” in that society, can this behavior still be bad for the subject itself? You bet it can! So this might be considered a “real” rather than “moral” sort of exploration. If run well this sort of research should provide us with a reasonable source of objective information from which to function.

    Given my hopes David, it should be clear why you interest me (as does EJ, as well as Mark, for different reasons).

  12. David,

    The reply from Brodix makes me realize that my first comment here could be misread. I was not simply trying to say something about our economic system (although economic considerations underlie many of the issues you discuss). My point was that “what ails our discourse?” is a question for those of us who believe that public discourse ‘ails’ – that the shared interchange of information and persuasion has developed obstacles to communication and shared agreements leading toward collective action. But I suggest that most people do not perceive any ailment here at all, and are not only content with the current universe of discourse, but actually find it socially useful in a number of ways (including economically).

    Any time we are considering a seeming problem in a given society, it helps to ask three questions: 1. Do the people involved perceive a problem? 2. If they do, what are they willing to do about it? 3. If they don’t, or are not willing to do anything about it, then could this ‘problem’ actually be built into the social processes that keep the society functioning? In other words, a) it may not be causing anyone discomfort despite its inefficacy as a process, and b) even should it in some ways cause discomfort or even harm, it may be satisfying in other ways that keeps the given society functioning.

    In short: on disinterested observation, it may appear to be a problem; but once all interests are taken into account, it may not be a real problem at all, or at least one that people are quite willing to live with.

    Finally, I referenced Dr. King’s “I have a dream,” because that was a public address that really did contribute to a moment of social change. But how? At the time, everyone knew that change was in the wind – it had already begun with Brown v. Board of Education, and the Alabama marches, and it was not to be stopped. All King did was to provide it with a focus, a lightning rod of imagery expressing the fundamental hope that his audience held dear, while reminding those on the fence of the issue of the justice embedded in that hope. He doesn’t talk about what we should do – his audience already knows what they should do; he is telling us ‘now is the time to do it,’ and reminding us of the future it can lead us to.

    In the condition of increasing fragmentation in 2016, it’s not clear that an address like King’s is possible or would have anything like the same effect. We do not know that change in a given direction is possible; we do not share the same hopes or dream the same future anymore. There is really no ‘we’ here to share this knowledge or these hopes. or take action based on these. Just a whole bunch of differing ‘us’ against ‘them’ tribes.

    Unfortunately – most people, though they complain, seem quite willing to live with that.

  13. Brodix,

    Stock markets collapse, societies collapse, personal fortunes disappear; yet capitalism marches on. Probably will as long as there are greedy people who know how to work the system, or who hope to work the system, or who trust the system works for them. The only ‘first principle’ of capitalist economics is greed.

  14. Mark,

    “people are not complete idiots and are often quite capable of drawing their own conclusions ”
    Certainly people are not idiots but I believe you severely underestimate the extent to which we are dependent on experts to make determinations about serious issues. The question of whether economic history since 1960 is more consistent with monetarism or Keynsianism or whether the history of various military interventions is more consistent with limited interventionism or isolationism is just going to be too complicated, way too complicated, for voters to make determinations on without experts. In such a situation if a news source presents all the strengths of, say, monetarism, and all of the weaknesses of Keynsianism, they will be able to manipulate their audience quite a ways.

    The piece I linked to was indeed an opinion piece but I believe it made the case quite forcefully that the media is no “side show”, but a very important political actor with very significant impact. That was my only point. And, as you you know from my previous pieces, I am arguing for neither legal nor social censorship. I am trying to influence matters through public advocacy and democratic discussion. For defeatism about this see also my reply to EJ.


    “I’m reminded of the *countless* essays I have read over the past 45 years that have deployed phrases like these concerning hopes of political, social, or economic reform. Not a single one of those essays actually contributed to political, social, or economic change.”

    Let’s see what you include in that. Did Letter from a Burmingham Jail, The Feminine Mystique, The Silent Spring and Animal Liberation do nothing? Do the Civil Rights Bill, the Equal Employment Act, the founding of the EPA, various animal cruelty laws not count as progress? What about All The President’s Men? Going farther back, Upton Sinclair was instrumental in getting the Meat Inspection Act passed. Ida Tarbell took down John D Rockefeller. In fact I think our current PC culture can be traced back to the writings of people like Katherine McKinnon, Iris Marion Young and bell hooks. Certainly William Buckley and later Pat Buchanan and Irving Kristol helped found a conservative movement. Writings have impact. And yes there is a lot of history I am leaving out here (riots, marches, assassinations and much else) but to believe that writings and public arguments were not an important part of this, in fact not a central part? I don’t believe it for a moment.

    By the way I never wanted to imply that writings alone would have the desired effect, but I do believe writings are an important part of it.


    ” I would share Kitcher’s skepticism that there could be a third (neutral) information source.”
    It seems to me the old NYT and old TV news provided it. The closest things today may be The Atlantic, The Economist and Foreign Affairs. It is possible to have a non-biased private media. We’ve done it before.

    As to Wittgenstein/private language, maybe but I nver like to argue something at a metaphysical level if it is avoidable.

  15. brodix


    Three millennia ago, the Assyrians used clay receipts for grain in the granary as a medium of exchange, at least according to Michael Hudson. Occasionally they would find there were more receipts than grain and that caused problems. Today, we have more receipts, than actual value and that is a problem. It is not a problem in terms of mechanism, but in ignorance over how the system works. Otherwise there would have a reasoned process to ameliorate this problem, long before it grew so large.

    That would seem to be an issue of discourse.

  16. David

    “… I believe you severely underestimate the extent to which we are dependent on experts to make determinations about serious issues.”

    My views on expertise probably differ from yours more on the issue of ‘moral expertise’ than in other areas.

    “The question of whether economic history since 1960 is more consistent with monetarism or Keynsianism or whether the history of various military interventions is more consistent with limited interventionism or isolationism is just going to be too complicated, way too complicated, for voters to make determinations on without experts.”

    Or even with the assistance of ‘experts’: because in a sense there are no experts here. Let me explain.

    Macroeconomic theory is a contested area, and moral and ideological commitments clearly come into it. I think it was Wilhelm Röpke who said that inflation is a ‘moral problem’. And this goes to the heart of my response. In decisions concerning choices between various economic approaches or frameworks both factual (relating to whether descriptions and predictions map on to the real world) and moral/ideological factors come into play.

    Similar factors apply to judgments about military interventions. There are practical questions about consequences, and then the moral dimension. To a large extent the question of whether to launch a military attack on Iraq and kill its leader (or do the same in Libya) could be seen as a moral problem. And moral problems simply cannot be dealt with in an objective or fine-grained sort of way like we deal with technical or scientific problems. I must confess that before the Iraq war, I was undecided about it: it was only after the event that it became clear to me that it had been a mistake. The predictions of the advocates of intervention were all proven to be wrong. And I think most people don’t need the help of experts to see this. There were no WMD. Iraqis did not embrace democracy and live together in prosperity and harmony. Likewise the disastrous intervention in Libya.

    Other ‘interventions’ have been arguably even more clearly morally flawed. Take the Allied bombing campaigns in Europe towards the end of World War 2 directed at civilian targets (e.g. Dresden) or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t think we need to call in the experts here. I know where I stand.

    I also know where I stand on economic questions (though I am not an economist). It may be that I have chosen to believe the wrong set of experts. Time may tell. General predictions have been made (you can never give precisely timed predictions in this area). How it finally plays out will not necessarily clearly validate or vindicate (or invalidate) any particular framework, but some predictions will be shown to have been more accurate than others.

    “… if a news source presents all the strengths of, say, monetarism, and all of the weaknesses of Keynsianism, they will be able manipulate their audience quite a ways.”

    I don’t deny this.

    “The piece I linked to was indeed an opinion piece but I believe it made the case quite forcefully that the media is no “side show”, but a very important political actor with very significant impact.”

    I almost regret using the term ‘sideshow’ at all, but remember I didn’t simply say it was a sideshow, I said it was “arguably little more than …”, and in the next sentence said that this kind of political commentary was more than just entertainment.

    And in my last comment I explicitly said that I accepted the point that the media influences public opinion. Of course it does. Nobody is disputing this.

    What I would say, however, is that the more profound and significant influences are not the shock jocks so much as the pervasive background assumptions etc. built into the entire suite of what the media delivers. (This is the sense in which the shock jocks etc. can indeed, I would argue, be seen as something of a sideshow.)

    [I may deal later with your accusations of defeatism.]

  17. Mark,

    I agree that the moral dimension of these debates complicates them in various ways (and that moral “experts”–presumably moral philosophers–are not “experts” in the same way physicists and economists and historians are), but even on the simple factual part of the question, ordinary people are not going to be able to come satisfactory conclusions on their own. Not by a long shot. You note the Iraq war as a clear case of a failed intervention. I agree. But other cases are more difficult. A good piece from awhile back:

    “[I may deal later with your accusations of defeatism.]”
    I hope you do.


    Yes the scope of the piece was to detail the problem not necessarily to provide a solution. At least certainly not an entire one.

    ” I suggest that a discipline be created to theorize the dynamics of good/bad existence itself.”
    Political philosophy serves this function (if I understand you aright) and I strongly doubt anything could take its place.

    But I am very glad and appreciative to have your interest.


    I am not sure how many people think there is a problem. We are hearing more and more about how people are dissatisfied with politics as it is practiced and with the media. I am hoping some of that discontent can be shifted onto our discourse as it is at the moment and that people can be moved to solidarity. Lincoln Steffans at the end of the last century and facing very similar problems put it: “There is no one left. No one but all of us.”

    Also King did very much set an agenda, a very specific agenda with specific policy proposals. Here is a good example.

    And while I was not there, from history it seems to me that America was at least as tribalized as it is now between race riots, vast generational divisions, “hippies” and “baby-killers”, the Soviet threat and the Vietnam war. Once again, the world turns and turns again.

  18. Hi David, I agree that we had a neutral information source (to some degree) in the past and it is possible to have again.

    The problem is that there is little to no money in providing neutral information anymore. You have a system that is now rigged and betting against the return of such a thing.

    If it is going to happen my thought is it will have to emerge from independent, grass-roots sources and not (large-scale) commercial enterprises which have an invested interest in infotainment. That will be a hard slog.

    I mean I hope you are right and it is easier than I think it will be.

  19. David

    You accused me of “defeatism” regarding your ideas about democratic debate and public advocacy. I would prefer to use a more neutral term and characterize it as skepticism.

    For one thing I’m still not entirely clear what you have in mind, what exactly you are claiming.

    In a reply to ejw you claim that various forms of writing and activism have influenced the course of events. Who would deny this? But seeing your list my first instinct is to say: Well, let’s look at each of these in turn. The examples are heterogeneous and don’t really help me understand what your particular angle is.

    The thing is, you seem to want to speak for ‘reason’ or some such, to rise above the fray. But my gut feeling is that in the end one has to bite the ideological bullet and – well, join the fray (if one wants to be an activist, that is). But then, unfortunately, you leave the high ground of reason behind for something like rhetoric. (Like that opinion piece you referred me to earlier: it was nicely done, but very tendentious.)

    I am not a natural activist. That may be why you see me as defeatist, but I’ve got nothing against activists – at least not against those who are not engaged (as many of them are, as it happens) in trying to undermine the things I hold most dear.

    You obviously hold certain things dear, not just abstract ideals but some good things about the culture you grew up in and are obviously committed to. I too can see some good in American culture, but simply don’t share your belief that the political structures can be made to work again as they once did. The economy, as I see it, is also a problem.

    I read that New Republic article (in defense of liberal/humanitarian interventionism). The issues are difficult, and have (as the author suggests) been made more difficult by previous flawed interventions. Part of the tragedy is that the US, by over-reaching and over-promising and by its perceived hidden agendas and very mixed motives, is rapidly losing respect in the world. Not so long ago you could (well I could) still see it as the cavalry riding to the rescue. Not any more. That myth has soured.

    What I see now is an increasingly dangerous, fading superpower involving itself in various far-away regions (Ukraine, South China Sea) primarily for geopolitical reasons. NATO expansion has arguably exacerbated tensions in Eastern Europe and pushed Russia in an unfortunate direction. American activities in the Eastern Pacific could be seen as sabre-rattling and an attempt to retain a role it once had which China is now seeking to take up. This is dangerous stuff.

    Which brings me back to that article. Was the author suggesting that the US should send troops into Burma??

    I don’t deny that there have been effective humanitarian military interventions in the past and that there will be more in the future. But one important determinant of success is that the flag of the intervening power should inspire respect and trust.

  20. Make that the Western Pacific!

  21. db,

    “The problem is that there is little to no money in providing neutral information anymore.”
    Walter Lippmann was making this same point nearly 90 years ago. Yet the heyday of television news and the Cronkite generation were ahead of them. Those shows made their revenue off of advertising just like the newspapers of old did. I don’t believe that a source cannot live off such revenue in the future, the problem is not with the supply it is with the demand. The readers do not have faith in the media so they won’t pay the price to get information on them (it would be like buying spoiled goods). I do believe that if an institution cou
    ld win back the public trust, they could support themselves on traditional revenue sources.

    As to a wiki style news media, I don’t think thats even close to feasible. Imagine the news run by Twitch Plays Pokemon.


    I don’t see “reason” and “the fray” as in such stark opposition as you do, neither “reason” and “rhetoric”. Statements like this strike me as telling:

    ” But my gut feeling is that in the end one has to bite the ideological bullet and – well, join the fray (if one wants to be an activist, that is). But then, unfortunately, you leave the high ground of reason behind for something like rhetoric. ”

    Why would this be? Take someone like MLK. Was he being un-reasonable or above the fray? He obviously was not being un-rhetorical, because he has been added to the list of great American rhetoricians. But he did not substitute rhetorical fire works for close argument. Indeed he held very subtle views and offered subtle arguments. For something less lofty I disagree with you about the Freidersdorf piece. It is an opinion piece. It engages, I suppose, in a certain amount of rhetoric. It certainly advances a political point of view. But it is objective and reasonable. Having a political purpose and being objective are not mutually exclusive. It is only in times like ours that they would seem so.

  22. halmorris

    Off topic, but I’m trying to read tEA now on an android tablet, and a pop-up is covering part of the screen that says ‘FOLLOW “THE ELECTRIC AGORA” Get every new post…’ and I can’t get rid of it; there is no “X” for dismissing it; I seem to have 2 choices “Follow” or “SIGN ME UP”. The design philosophy of the web is more and more about selling you something – things popping up that you didn’t ask for, etc., and while tEA isn’t about that, I think that mentality is rubbing off on tEA via prevalent design trends.

  23. Hal, I appreciate the heads-up. Let me look into it.

  24. dantip


    Have you experienced this problem on any other web browsing device?