Know your discourses


When people are debating a subject, there are usually two main levels. These are opinion and discourse: What we believe and how we believe it, what conclusion we argue that people should reach, and how we talk about it. Discourse is a matter of what words and phrases are used, and a matter of what meanings these words and phrases are given. How relationships between categories are constructed, and so on.

The discourse is usually more important than the opinion. Even much more important. How we think and talk about an issue determines which opinions and and voices should be taken seriously and which ones should not. It lays the ground for current and future decisions, not only regarding the issue at hand but also regarding related issues.

Sadly, it is very common that people think only about the opinions, their own and others. They don’t see the discourse, they don’t analyze it. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect them. When they accept a discourse, it will influence how they think and feel about things. It will influence not only what choices they make, but to an even larger extent what choices they will feel good about. When they reject a discourse without understanding it, they will usually lash out at the person who use that discourse. They will reject her along with her discourse. They will accuse her of being stupid, not one of us, having a hidden agenda, or whatever. In best case, they will simply frustrate themselves and each other, by keep talking past each other. Talking about the same issue, but using very different discourses. Discussing the issues this way without discussing the discourses they are using, they will never truly communicate. They will simply chant slogans and accusations at each other, each of them failing to understand what the other person truly means.

When you hang out with some people, it is very easy for you to assimilate their discourses. That you start to talk and think the same way that they do. This is a first step to assimilating their opinions as well, but more importantly it is a first step to assimilating yourself into their social circle. It is a matter of belonging to the group or making yourself an outcast. When this is done without analyzing the discourse, it often lead to people taking up discourses that are bad for them and their arguments. Discourses that go against their actual beliefs and personalities, discourses that humiliate people they care about or even themselves. The later is part of a phenomenon that I call Internalized Categorism. Its most famous form is when it happens to homosexuals. In that particular case, it is called. “internalized homophobia”

It is very important that you understand what discourses you use. When you have that understanding, you can choose what discourses to use. You can choose when to use a certain discourse, and why. While this can sometimes be used to manipulate people, it is more easily used as a means of respecting yourself and others. A tool for understanding what other people are actually saying, and a tool for making it easier for them to understand you.

Take for example the issue of The Meaning Of Life. When I recently wrote about this subject, I defined “life” as “the actual lives that we are actually living” and “the actual biosphere that we are actually a part of”. I didn’t clarify this definition, but I think it was quite obvious from context that these are the definitions I used.

Using this definition, I presented belief in a higher power as one of the four ways you can find meaning in life. But what if you want life without God to be meaningless? What if your purpose is to recruit as many as possible to your own religion, or to feel better about yourself at the expense of people who don’t share your beliefs? In that case, you need a different definition of “life”! This problem is easy to solve: Simply redefine the word “life” into meaning “creation”. Suddenly the question about “the meaning of life” no longer mean “What is the meaning of the actual lives we actually live?”, and instead mean “What is the meaning of the creation of the universe?”.

As long as you get people to accept this discourse, you can easily prove to them that life cannot possibly be meaningful unless the-universe-and-thus-life was created by a higher power who did so for a conscious purpose. There is no room for the position that “while the first self-replicating amino acids didn’t have any meaning, thinking and feeling human beings do have meaning”. Congratulations: With this discourse, you have built “agree with my beliefs, or despair” into the very language.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a man who had accepted this discourse. Interestingly enough, he wasn’t religious. Instead, he argued that science has proven life to be meaningless. He didn’t actually mean that the lives we are living are bleak and meaningless, much less that we should all suicide because he’s not a Christian. But he sure made it sound that way. By using the discourse of theism-is-the-only-possible-answer, he made a very bad case for himself and for the science that he’s actually in favor of.

Since his arguments didn’t seem to make any sense, I switched from discussing the issue to discussing the discourse. Thus I got him to tell me that yes, this was the definition of “life” he was using. When I replied that he shouldn’t use that definition of life, he got angry and asked if I think that my semantics are the only true semantics.

Well, no. Different discourses are good for different purposes. His discourse is not good for understanding, and it is not good for making a convincing argument for his actual opinion. It is only good for establishing the supremacy of a belief that he does not share. That’s why I think it would be a better choice for him to switch to a different discourse. I hope he will listen to this, and start thinking about his discourse.

Another example, a few weeks ago. A woman who belong to a certain minority group made an online diary post about cooperation with a different but related minority group. She had been in some debates with people who belong to the other group and dislikes the group that she belongs to. She had internalized some of their discourse: In her blog post, she talked about her own group as if they were inherently inferior to the other group, and as if attempts to participate in the same festivals as the other group should be regarded as “infiltration”. Of course, she doesn’t actually believe that her own group is inferior. But that’s what some people thought when they read her post, and they got very angry at her. She had meant well, yet she got a swarm of personal attacks from people in her own group. She hadn’t thought about the discourse she was using, and neither did the people who attacked her – they acted on instinct, feeling that there was something horrible with her.

In this case, they had good reason to criticize her although it would have been far better if they had managed to analyze the discourse so they would have been able to give her constructive criticism instead of attacks.

In other cases, however… The violent reaction she got, it is very easy to get the same reaction whenever you challenge people’s prejudices and bigotries. It is so easy to feel revulsion over someone’s discourse, and lash out. Challenging your own world-view is hard, deciding that there is something horribly wrong with the person who challenge it is much easier.

Without analyzing the discourse, it becomes very much harder to see why you instinctively dislike someone else’s discourse. Whether the discourse is trying to trap you in a narrow perspective or on the contrary tries to give you a more nuanced understanding.

Get to know your discourses.
Start analyzing.

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