We are currently caught up in a battle of discourses. Mostly, this battle rages between Critical Social Justice activists and right-wing populists, with the rest of us stuck somewhere in the middle and having to pick sides. Whether it is postmodernism or post-truth, “other ways of knowing” or “alternative facts,” there is a battle between two simplistic conceptions of society and neither of them have any great love for science, reason, or the marketplace of ideas. With the Critical Social Justice belief system dominating society culturally and the populist right-wing one dominating it politically, we find ourselves faced with two powerfully influential discourses, each of them convinced that the other is both more powerful and more threatening to liberal democracies. Meanwhile, social media enables people to form more tightly sealed echo-chambers and be fed only the news that supports their own narrative and the two dominant discourses continue to feed each other.
What we need above all right now is a space for more reasonable and moderate voices. We need a space where a variety of viewpoints can be expressed and where anybody can challenge any ideas regardless of their identity. We need to encourage more measured and thoughtful criticisms of simplistic narratives. We need, to put it in as neat a phrase as possible, some new discourses.
What Are Discourses?
The word “discourse” means, at its simplest, “to talk about something.” However, on a broader sociological level, “discourse” usually refers to the way something is being talked about. “Legal discourse” refers to the language of law and the rules and specific terminology associated with that profession. “Scientific discourse” is that which uses the language of science and abides by its rules and expectations.
In the political and cultural realm, the term “discourses” is often used to refer to beliefs and narratives being commonly shared among people with a certain viewpoint. The type of rhetoric that includes “Make America Great Again” is a discourse. So too is that which includes “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” If you have a good idea what values someone who says either of those things is likely to hold, what arguments they are likely to make, what conception they have of society, and what changes they would like to make to it, you are familiar with two political discourses that are prominent in 2020.
Anybody who engages with a society will be familiar with many discourses. This is something we tribal, pattern-detecting, social mammals do. We learn to quickly assess people based on a small sample of information and then fill in the gaps. Very often we will do this reasonably accurately, and it is useful. Sometimes we won’t be so reasonable or accurate, and the more dogmatically tribal and ideologically-motivated we are, the less likely we are to interpret people with different views correctly and the more likely we are to read them simplistically and uncharitably and place everyone with even slightly differing views into a category of “bad people.” This is known as “parochial altruism,” and all people are prone to it. History bears witness to this tendency as demonstrated by devastating wars of religion which typically take place between groups of people with the same religion but slightly different interpretations of it.
We still see this bad habit of mind today, not only with religion but from all sides of the political spectrum. We see this in the tendency of some conservatives to call anyone to the left of them “communists” and in the tendency of some leftists to call anyone to the right of them “fascists.” In the recent history of liberal secular democracies, mainstream society has regarded people who think in such tribalistic and simplistic ways as extremists who lack the necessary nuance and sophistication to address complex political and social issues in a credible and ethical way. Currently, however, there is a highly influential school of thought, both intellectual and political, that advocates for just such a simplistic understanding of society and groups within it and its ideology is centered on the concept of “discourses.” These are the “Critical Social Justice” scholars and activists.
Critical Social Justice scholars and activists draw strongly on postmodern understandings of discourses, knowledge, and power, all of which are inextricably linked. The postmodernists and their descendants are social constructivists, and they regard knowledge as constructed by powerful groups in society which are able to decide what is and isn’t true. They also believe knowledge is constructed in the service of power to maintain the privilege of certain dominant groups in society at the expense of everyone else. They use this to propose that because knowledge—especially scientific knowledge—has been given legitimacy in society, it is then accepted uncritically as true by nearly everyone and then constantly reinforced by the way we all talk about things. These common ways of talking about things are known as “dominant discourses,” and they are believed to uphold unjust power systems like patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, heteronormativity (the assumption that heterosexuality is normal and homosexuality abnormal), cisnormativity (the assumption that having a gender identity that matches one’s biological sex is normal and having one that differs is abnormal), ableism, and fatphobia.
This concept of discourses acting as ways of imposing power that run through people on all levels of society without their conscious knowledge originated in the various critical theories and owes a great deal to the postmodern conception of knowledge. For Jacques Derrida, everything is discourse. We cannot get outside the bounds of language or think in any other way, and there is no anchored center of meaning that relates to an objective reality. It is all just words relating to other words with meaning consequently always deferred. For Jean François Lyotard, twisting the philosophy of Wittgenstein, society consists of “language games” that operate differently within each unique context, and some have been unfairly privileged over others and become inextricably linked with the language of power and government.
The most influential postmodernist who worked in the realm of discourses, however, was Michel Foucault, and it is his understanding of how discourses work that feature most strongly within Critical Social Justice scholarship. As Dino Franco Falluga puts it:
Foucault explores the many “discourse-formations” that structure our negotiation of knowledge and power in a given society at a given time. Each discourse has its own specific history of emergence and entails a certain set of rules that govern what objects may be spoken of within the discourse, what rituals should accompany use of the discourse and which subjects have the right to speak within the discourse.
“Discourse” may well have originally meant simply conversation or speech but Foucault argues that any speech is in fact shot through with various assumptions, rules, and principles of exclusion: “In appearance,” he explains, “speech may well be of little account, but the prohibitions surrounding it soon reveal its links with desire and power.” For Foucault, then, discourse is “a violence that we do to things, or, at all events, as a practice we impose upon them.”
If discourse can be violence, and many Critical Social Justice scholars and activists insist that can be, it becomes a form of activism to closely scrutinize language and interpret it politically in terms of power. Foucault says,
My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So, my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.
Discourses can be violence. Discourses can be dangerous. Understanding the postmodern position on this helps to explain why so much Critical Social Justice scholarship and activism is focused on monitoring the speech of everyone from the President of the United States to any given largely unknown private individual with a dozen followers on social media. If discourses really construct social reality and work to maintain oppressive systems of power and privilege on all levels of society, as Critical Social Justice suggests, of course it becomes imperative to control what can and cannot be said on all levels of society. If what we understand as reliable methods of knowledge production—science and reason—simply reflect the narrow, biased, and self-interested standpoint of dominant groups in society and the special knowledge of women and racial and sexual minorities have thereby been unjustly devalued, it becomes essential to sideline straight, white men along with science and reason and foreground the knowledge of marginalized groups, as long as they comport with Critical Social Justice Theory. This Theory continually evolves as more and more things are “discovered” to be problematic so avoiding minefields becomes increasingly difficult.
All of this is entirely unfalsifiable. Critical Social Justice scholars and activists believe that people are born into existing discourses of power and privilege as set out by Theory, learn them and speak them uncritically so there is no possibility of legitimate disagreement. Attempts to disagree are evidence of one’s uncritical acceptance of dominant discourses. They also believe that only they themselves are possessed of the right kind of awareness to detect these discourses and expose their flaws. In Theory, this awareness is often referred to as “critical consciousness,” though in activism, we are more familiar with it being called “woke.” Any attempts to suggest an alternative, non-woke explanation for any scenario is simply evidence of your unwokeness. You need to take responsibility for dismantling your whiteness or detoxifying your masculinity so you can see them and recognize them as the dominant discourses they are.
Of course, the view of discourses from within Critical Social Justice is not entirely nonsense. We do tend to accept our social norms as common sense, and these are largely upheld by ways of talking about things. It really is absolutely essential that we look critically at various discourses around us and think about them. From a liberal perspective, we currently have some very troubling discourses in society that have far too much influence. These include right-wing, populist, nationalist, anti-intellectual, anti-expertise narratives that feature xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and racist beliefs as well as disparagement of important scholarship generally and particularly in the area of climate change. They also include Critical Social Justice. It is ironic that people who talk so much about the need to disrupt dominant discourses and challenge their power fail to notice that theirs is a particularly powerful one. The power Critical Social Justice ideas have in the universities that produce the leaders of our industries is immense. Large corporations are under increasing amounts of pressure to uphold Critical Social Justice notions of diversity (of identity, not ideas), equity (rather than equal opportunities), and inclusion (exclusion of all ideas that contradict Critical Social Justice). Celebrities are liable to face career damaging pushback and even demands for cancellation for any non-woke ideas they might ever have expressed.
The postmodernists and Critical Social Justice scholars and activists are not wrong to say that we need to examine powerful discourses that legitimize what a society accepts as knowledge and see what narratives they are perpetuating and challenging those. They are wrong not to include their own conception of the world and belief system as a primary example of a dominant discourse and to imply that theirs is the only valid method of criticism. Criticizing dominant discourses has been central to liberal progress for women and racial, religious, and sexual minorities. These criticisms have fully recognized the power of language because they have been centered on the concept of the marketplace of ideas.
The Marketplace of Ideas: A Different Conception of Discourses
The idea that how we talk about things matters is not a discovery of postmodernists and Critical Social Justice scholars and activists. Human societies have always understood the power of language, and what is new and unusual to us is that we’re in a historical epoch in which we value not attempting to regulate the speech of others. Being able to disagree with, mock, or criticize religion and government is something that developed as a core part of the foundational philosophy of the modern period and has been invaluable to the production of knowledge and moral progress. The values that underlie being able to do this can be referred to as “liberalism” (in the broad philosophical sense), “liberal science,” or “The Marketplace of Ideas.”
The concept of the Marketplace of Ideas in which anybody may express any idea and challenge any other idea and allow these ideas to compete with each other in the marketplace of public opinion is unique for two reasons.
Firstly, the concept of a Marketplace of Ideas relies on confidence in humans’ ability to evaluate ideas. This has manifestly not been the case historically, particularly with religion before secularism took hold, where heresy and blasphemy laws have dictated what must be believed and expressed. Expressions of deference and loyalty to feudal lords and monarchs were also an obligation for centuries and women and the working class have been forbidden to access certain ideas or discuss them. The Critical Social Justice approach to regulating, banning, censoring, mandating, and punishing ideas expressed in speech is not new. Neither are their beliefs about which groups in society may speak authoritatively (or authentically) about which issues (largely relegating straight, white men to silence unless it is time for them to acknowledge their privilege & deplore it). They are simply yet another manifestation of an orthodoxy which believes that it holds the Truth and others must be compelled to adhere to it for their own sake and that of society.
Secondly, the concept of a Marketplace of Ideas recognizes the limitations of individual reason and examination of evidence. It sets up a system which mitigates human bias towards more readily accepting evidence and reasoned arguments that support what we already believe by bringing people with different biases together and allowing them to challenge each other. As the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt puts it:
Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds… But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).
This is a system set up to prevent any discourse being privileged over any other and providing a level playing field for all to be considered. Nobody has special authority or the final word and ideas can be evaluated on their merits. Again, this is markedly different to historical systems in which the church and/or monarchs decided what was true and claimed authority from God to have the final word. Also again, the Critical Social Justice claim to authority as mouthpiece of the marginalized (although believers in Critical Social Justice are a minority in every group) and its own right to have the final word on which ideas have merit (its own, obviously) are neither new nor unusual. They are just another manifestation of the common illiberal human tendency to want to seize power and impose one’s own beliefs on the rest of society.
The purpose of liberal systems like the Marketplace of Ideas—that is, the liberal discourse—is to put this all-too-human tendency into check. It’s to enable us to hear from extremist voices while not being held hostage to them. It gives us a space in which those viewpoints can be expressed amongst many others, and where they can be checked, one against another, and have their kernels of truth plucked from them and made use of in more reasonable, measured, and responsible ways. The will to seize power is not new, and neither is the attempt to seize it by controlling how we think, speak, and write, whether in the name of a just God or in pursuit of “Social Justice.” These we must allow to exist where they can without letting them dictate our discourses for us because it is not the content of our discourses but the desire to dominate them that defines tyranny.