Saturday, 8 October 2011

Positions on political correctness: towards a stratigraphical model of argumentation

Saturday 8 October 2011

This article postulates a theoretical model that aims to conceptualise the manner in which existing social consensuses (comprised of individual opinions, and comprising dominant discourses) are challenged by certain kinds of new, reactionary positions (again, comprised of individual opinions, but comprising counter-discourses) until these reactionary positions gain acceptance and themselves become consensuses. Its intended use is as a defense for emergent reactionary positions, which can be wrongly distorted by the dominant discourse to appear to represent the outdated, often now morally reprehensible position that the dominant discourse itself supplanted, and can therefore be easily dismissed. By systematising the dominant social consensuscounter-position interaction, proponents of counter positions will be armed with the vocabulary to situate themselves in relation to past and present social consensuses.

Individual opinions and social consensuses form one of the faces of dominant and counter-discourses.

Any feedback, suggestions, corrections, criticisms or referrals to existing similar models will be useful in refining the technical terminology, visual metaphor and general conceptualisation of the model, and will be greatly appreciated. I acknowledge that my familiarity with Foucault is insufficient to ensure proper use of the terms discourse and counter-discourse. 

It seems to me that on certain social issues and within certain debates, there exists a 'stratigraphy of argumentation', formed over time by a process of successive reactionary positions becoming social consensuses. Let us postulate a field onto which opposing positions on the same issue can be plotted as originating from either the left or the right, and chronologically from bottom to top.

The blue bar represents Position 1. The extent to which Position 1 advances across the field represents the extent to which society takes up that position. If Position 1 advances too far across the field, that may represent a social consensus that has been taken too far, to its logical extremity, like so:


Let us say that Position 1 represents society before the advent of the political correctness movement. It spans the entirety of the field, meaning exclusive, discriminatory and offensive language (of the kind that political correctness seeks to prevent) is entirely socially acceptable. It is not so much an argument that politically incorrect language is good as it is an invisible fact of society; it was the advent of political correctness that defined the debate and effectively 'created' politically incorrect language. The social consensus embodied by Position 1 came to be challenged and, eventually, superseded by Position 2, the political correctness movement:

As Position 2 gains greater social consensus and is enforced with more fervor, it moves further across the field, covering the original consensus of Position 1 until only a small portion of it remains uninterred. This uncovered portion is representative of those in society who continue to adhere to Position 1, the original consensus.

In the diagram above, however, Position 2 has advanced rather deep into the field. It is becoming increasingly common for people to resent political correctness, viewing it as laughably and ridiculously over-enforced. This new position, which reacts to political correctness and is steadily gaining social consensus, is represented by another blue bar emerging from the right:

Here the stratigraphy model demonstrates its use. There is an important distinction to be made between the remaining subscribers to the original consensus, Position 1, that politically incorrect language was acceptable, and the subscribers to the new Position 3, who resent and resist the extremity of political correctness, but do not necessarily want a return to Position 1 being social consensus. They emerge from the same side as Position 1, as they must in order to oppose Position 2, but they also occupy a higher argumentative stratum. As long as they don't advocate the original consensus, Position 1, their argument is a different one. They acknowledge and agree with the basic tenets of Position 2, but desire to push back against it to reduce it to a more reasonable level. Steadfast proponents of Position 2 might attempt to dismiss proponents of Position 3 as being proponents of Position 1, perhaps using terms like 'racist', or 'sexist'. By using the stratigraphy of argumentation model, proponents of new positions like Position 3 can situate their position in relation to others, thereby distinguishing themselves from proponents of Position 1, and thereby saving their arguments from being unfairly dismissed, in a phenomenon that has been called 'totschweigtaktik' (AustroGerman for 'death by silence'), described as 'depriving someone and their work or opinion of the oxygen of attention ... [Y]ou don't criticise or engage with what they say, write or produce; you just let their efforts expire soundlessly, like a butterfly in a bell jar' (Gare). If social commentators attempting to criticise the dominant discourse with a new position can pre-empt their detractors' distortions of their viewpoints by positioning themselves on the stratigraphy of argumentation, they will be better equipped to do so.

On the issue of political correctness, I would place my own position as occupying a fourth stratum. This, in fact, is how I first conceptualised the stratigraphy model. I did not wish for my position, which issues from the same side as Position 2 and involves defending political correctness, to be confused with a defense of the laughable and ridiculous elements of political correctness that Position 3 points to.

Essentially, Position 4 contends that political correctness was right to challenge the acceptability of exclusive, discriminatory, and offensive language (Position 2), but that it has also often descended into the laughable and ridiculous (Position 3). However, to employ the politician's favourite refrain, 'Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater'. Political correctness 'springs from benevolent instincts' it is about ensuring minorities within society are not alienated. When a group of straight, Australian-born, non-disabled friends are introduced to an individual who is homosexual, foreign, or disabled, it's not only polite and moral for the members of the majority group to make changes to their behaviour, it's natural. Suddenly they might begin to watch what they say so as not to accidentally offend the individual. If the group of friends usually use the word 'gay' as a pejorative, it is likely they will naturally cease this in the presence of a homosexual person (of course these injunctions may relax once the individual integrates into the group, or the presence of the individual may cause the members of the group to cease the use of the word altogether, newly sensitised as they may be to its offensiveness). That is political correctness on a small scale.*

*Speaking personally for a second, if this doesn't sound particularly desirable, having to censor yourself because different people are around, then you're thinking too much about yourself and not the other person. If you think a small change or inconvenience to yourself is more important than someone else's feelings, then it's probably because you're a wanker.

To return to the stratigraphy of argumentation, what we observe as the process of stratification continues is an interment of former social consensuses into irrelevance – they are positions all but eradicated from society, although they still form the foundation of the current consensus. We also witness a pattern emerging as higher strata of argumentation are reached. Each position objects to less of the social consensus than did its predecessor. In other words, the arguments become more refined; binaries are disassembled. Notice the Positions in the diagram below almost seem to be forming a triangle as they inter less and less of the consensuses they challenge. A hypothetical Position 5 answering my Position would be even more refined:

Each new position cedes more and more to the consensus it challenges, acknowledging its successes, picking elements upon which they both agree, and yet ever questioning, ever refining, ever answering questions which the consensus cannot.
Despite the suggestion implicit in this process, that an 'apex position' can be reached, this model instead contends that the positions can be infinitely 'sharpened', 0.01 mm shaved off from a position of the left, 0.001 mm shaved off from the right and so on, ad infinitum. Just one reason that an apex position is impossible is that as soon as a position ideal for any given society reached social consensus, the first change in that society which could not be accommodated by that consensus would give rise to a new position.

It should also be noted, now that the model has been fully explained, that the stratigraphy of argumentation for the issue of political correctness that has been displayed above is extremely simplified. A more realistic depiction would look something more like this:

The most important difference between this diagram and those previous is the more realistic depiction of the refinement process. The strata will rarely move towards apex in the centre, a fact that has important implications for the political and social philosophy of centrism, but I will treat that issue in another article. 

Another important aspect of the model is that it only works for certain issues whose nature demands the left-right alternation. Furthermore, only past and present consensuses can be placed into the statigraphy with certainty, and future positions can only be postulated, meaning advocates of new positions can only put forward evidence that theirs is or should be the 'next' consensus, and only history will determine whether or not that is the case. And, of course, the entire model is in distorting generalities, simplifying history in a way that can be dangerous. Not all of society’s diverse opinions can be  reduced to one bar on a scale coming from one of two sides; this is just a way of thinking. Thinkers are more likely to be swimming around in the ether above the massive social consensuses and positions, pre-empting, predicting and postulating future positions.

I hope in this article to have devised a model and a set of nomenclature that will assist challenges to the social consensuses of the dominant discourse in future by better equipping the proponents of new positions to defend themselves against misrepresentation, totschweigtaktik, and dismissal. However, further refinement, testing and reform of the model is needed.

Shelley Gare's 'Death by Silence in the Writers' Combat Zone' in Quadrant, JulyAugust 2010, Volume LIV, Number 78.

No comments:

Post a Comment