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De-discoursation and metaphors

Published on 24 August 2012
Updated on 06 December 2023

I’m elated – the recent contributions by Drazen PEHAR and Katharina HÖHNE are a pleasure to read – and allow me to add to their thoughts I’ll reply to both together, because they are, in some ways, related.

First let me acknowledge and thank Drazen for taking my side in the “nature vs. nurture” debate on human nature. Though mankind is both genetically and socially constructed, I’ve argued, culture – social construction – tends to prevail in shaping human affairs. Culture is eminently plastic: no inevitabilities attach to culture (and war). By arguing “de-discoursation” Drazen, I’d say, agrees. For what is more social than “discourse”? Admittedly, it can fail, but it need not – no inevitabilities.

Lest you yawn and consider all this esoteric, let me disabuse you. This kind of thinking is very much alive in discourses about international relations. One only has to read the vulgar press to see this line of argument drip between the lines and stain the popular message.

The whole school of Leo STRAUSS and others argue that there is an inherent bad streak in mankind; in the end discourse is a waste of time. De-discoursation is inevitable, and war is the only possible outcome. The good better hit first, since they have to hit anyway. When a President in his State of the Union divides the world into “with us” and “against us” he is espousing the same binary point of view. Religions that argue “original sin” and the need for godly salvation to save mankind from itself also put such a pessimistic spin of our worldviews. On a very practical level, this kind of stereotyping is at best debilitating, and at worst becomes a temptation – like looking over the edge of a cliff only to feel drawn into it.

Drazen PEHAR is absolutely right in pointing to the core mechanism that triggers war and violence – failure in communication. This applies to the personal and the social (and diplomatic) level. Let’s look at what might be going on.

At the most general level, we are social animals. We define ourselves and members of a group and when we communicate we affirm that we are members in good standing: communication is self-affirmation. Consequently we tend to act situationally rather than autonomously. Paraphrasing Descartes: we communicate, hence we are.

De-discoursation and metaphors

If communication fails, the “social self” is denied self-affirmation. Existentialpanic ensues. The “emotional” side takes over: we are down to the “fight or flight”. One example: when an inmate first enters a French prison, the size of his vocabulary is tested. Below a certain level, he’ll be earmarked as “potential trouble-maker”. Why? He just does not have the vocabulary to get his point across – whatever it may be – he’ll lash out in frustration.

This insight on what it means to be “human” is far from shared; in fact, I’d say it is squarely minoritarian. My blog 155 is devoted to analyzing the view that the individual is inherently autonomous and the role of the state (as proxy for society) is to defend this pristine autonomy against all comers, in particular the majority – the social group. Again, much international discourse finds its intellectual roots in this worldview.

Now to Drazen’s “de-discoursation”. He is right to argue that failures in the discourse occur. Why?
Words are signifiers. What we “intend” is compressed into a word or sentence. Linguists might argue that the written word is “dead” – it is deprived of the entire emotional contour that gives it credibility and authenticates it. What we “intend”, furthermore, includes an enormous amount of “silent” culture. It’s our general way of looking at things and doing things. It’s the many shared conventions that allow a group to survive and prosper. And we are hardly aware of them – or we “assume” that we share them with the opposite side (we may be wrong). When Drazen says: “Ethics of discourse is here of critical importance: the use of discourse is human activity and as such it is not value-neutral – it is guided by some standards, principles, norms and values” he is referring to this – but not all: there is, in my view, much more, and deeper.

The respondent hears the jumble of sounds and “decompresses” it – he decodes words in accordance to his own perceptions and tries to give meaning to them in his own cultural terms.

Clearly this coding and decoding is a hazardous process, and much (maybe most) gets lost in translation. Such is the inherent danger of communication – just good enough to get by, but certainly no more. But such is the strength of a social system: it keeps on functioning (yield acceptable results) even with a large proportion of error.

These are structural limits of communication. When entering into a negotiation much time and care might be spent in trying to explore these limits  or plunge the depths of our silent assumptions.

We now move to the intentional limits – here we knowingly manipulate the discourse. These are Drazen’s points. We may want to deceive for advantage; we may wish to “save face”; we may have “good intentions”; we may be befuddled.  Drazen is right. At the negotiating table one shall watch out for manipulation of the discourse – without forgetting the wider backgrounding aspect of the cultural context.

Let’s now move to Katharina’s metaphors. In my philosophy classes they were called “pons asinorum”: a bridge for donkeys, which facilitated understanding. You are absolutely right, Katharina, metaphors can help us understand a new situation by drawing an analogy to an old one. Here an example. Up to Newton’s time mankind thought that stars and planets influenced our life – many of us still do. Newton preserved the image of “attraction” between heavenly bodies – only he quantified the attraction as the law of inverse square . An emotional and subjective image before was now made objective and measured. The fact that the metaphor of “attraction” remained intact made life easier for Newton. In Newton’s case the metaphor helped: it allowed the step from subjective to objective “attraction” to be made with some confidence. . On the other hand, we have not yet found a good metaphor for quantum theory – hence our difficulty understanding it.

Katharina says: “The rise of a mechanistic world-view from the 15th century onwards brought about mechanistic metaphors for international relations (a view of the balance of power as a force parallelogram for example).” This observation perfectly highlights the danger of metaphors, which I’d like to stress in order to balance it against their undoubted usefulness, forcing the user of metaphors to reflect, before uttering them.

A social system is NOT mechanistic; to assimilate it to one tends to “limit the horizon of the possible”. Drazen mentioned the “domino theory”. Here the metaphor was deadly wrong, for it asserted mechanical inevitabilities which never in fact eventuated nor existed. Had the US not been hostage to this metaphor, it may have understood that Vietnam’s struggle was one for independence, both from the French and from their mentor to the North. Vietnam had freed itself of China’s over-lordship thousand years ago, and was unlikely to forego history for ideology.

Another example is “containment”. In George KENNAN’s original concept it was meant to be preliminary to negotiation. The metaphor hardened into a laager mentality. On both sides of the Iron Curtain change was perceived as threat. In particular the West mistook the legitimate aspiration to de-colonisation and nation-building by the third world for a threat to worldwide stability.

Attention to the historical and material context seems to me paramount. Metaphors can be useful servants, but as in XVIIIth century comic plays, saucy servants (and good metaphors tend to be saucy and catchy)  risk becoming masters. This will not do.

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