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Discourse dynamics: Human nature and global politics

Published on 24 August 2012
Updated on 02 February 2024

I’m elated. The recent blog contributions by Dražen Pehar (‘War, diplomacy, and ‘dediscoursation’‘) and Katharina Höne (‘Metaphors for diplomats: A ‘user manual’‘) 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 Dražen for taking my side in the nature vs. nurture debate on human nature. Though mankind is both genetically and socially constructed, I’ve argued that culture (social construction) tends to prevail in shaping human affairs. Culture is eminently plastic: no inevitabilities attach to culture (and war). By arguing for ‘de-discoursation’, Dražen, 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.

binary -all wrong vs all right

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 on 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.

Dražen 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 as 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. To paraphrase Descartes, ‘We communicate, hence we are.’

If communication fails, the ‘social self’ is denied self-affirmation. Existential panic ensues. The ‘emotional’ side takes over: we are down to ‘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 a ‘potential trouble-maker’. Why? He just does not have the vocabulary to get his point across – whatever it may be; he will lash out in frustration.

This insight into what it means to be ‘human’ is far from shared; in fact, I’d say it is squarely minoritarian. My blog entitled ‘Are democracies drifting toward ‘psephocracy’?’ is devoted to analysing 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 Dražen’s de-discoursation. He is right to argue that failures in 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 Dražen 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 with 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 (yielding 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 intentional limits – here we knowingly manipulate the discourse. These are Dražen’s points. We may want to deceive for advantage; we may wish to ‘save face’; we may have ‘good intentions’; we may be befuddled. Dražen is right. At the negotiating table, one should watch out for manipulation of the discourse – without forgetting the wider backgrounding aspect of the cultural context.

Bubble tangle

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’s 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 worldview from the 15th century onwards brought about mechanistic metaphors for international relations, such as the view of the balance of power as a force parallelogram.’ This observation perfectly highlights the danger of metaphors, which I’d like to stress, in order to balance their undoubted usefulness against their potential pitfalls. It forces the user of metaphors to reflect before employing them.

A social system is NOT mechanistic; assimilating it to one tends to ‘limit the horizon of the possible’. Dražen mentioned the ‘domino theory’. Here, the metaphor was deadly wrong, as it asserted mechanical inevitabilities which never in fact eventuated or existed. Had the USA not been hostage to this metaphor, it might 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 from China’s over-lordship a thousand years ago, and was unlikely to forego history for ideology.

Another example is ‘containment’, a strategy of George Kennan. In its original concept, the strategy was meant to be preliminary to negotiation. However, the metaphor hardened into a larger mentality. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, change was perceived as a threat. In particular, the West mistook the legitimate aspiration for decolonisation and nation-building by the third world as a threat to worldwide stability.

Attention to the historical and material context seems paramount to me. Metaphors can be useful servants, but as in 18th-century comic plays, saucy servants risk becoming masters (and good metaphors tend to be saucy and catchy). This will not do.

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