My part time love affair with Half Price Books continues, although my collection of Tsundoku books may be growing beyond my comfort level. Perhaps a reading sabbatical is in order? I just finished The Death of Discourse, the was a chance discovery from my last trip. It was an interesting read but it did ask far more questions than it answered, which is not always a bad thing.
I do admit that I bought the book thinking it would be a more general discussion about the decline if real, deep conversation in society. Rather it was very focused on the question of whether the first amendment to the US Constitution is sustainable in the face of modern commercial culture. Despite the more specific focus than I originally thought (and personally not being all that interested in the Constitution or the amendments….for sheep, by sheep, on sheep), it was still a worthwhile read that included a number of interesting rhetorical approaches, including the use of dialogs as a way to frame the ideas in a different way at the end of each section, which I found to be especially valuable.
The authors’ basic points are well summarized on page 202:
1 – The difference between the old principles of political speech (rational decision making, civic participation, and meaningful dissent) and the new practices of an electronic entertainment culture (trivialization, passivity and pleasure);
2 – the difference between the informational principles of commercial speech (marketplace of economic ideas) and the imagistic practices of a mass commercial advertising culture (marketing of items); and
3 – the difference between the loft principles of artistic expression (self-realization) and the low practices of a pornographic culture (self-gratification).*
The authors build a case that because of these differences the Madisonian ideas embodied in the 1st amendment are, in fact, self destructive. In other words, the 1st amendment in an ouroboros. If the government enforces a strict conservative view of the first amendment by banning speech that doesn’t live up to Madisonian ideals, it will necessarily over reach and thereby destroy the intent of the first amendment by banning some speech that should be allowed. If however, the government interprets the first amendment liberally, then human nature as exhibited by both sellers (profit motive) and buyers (entertainment motive) will destroy the intent of the first amendment by flooding the market with speech generates heat, leaving no room for speech that generates light. If you go with the spirit of the law, the law is destroyed – if you go with the letter of the law, the law is destroyed. Rock, meet hard place.
I have to give the authors a lot of credit as they argued both the conservative as well as the liberal arguments very even handedly. Both lines of argument are presented in an unbiased fashion with obvious strengths and weaknesses. That being said, I will admit that I “argued” with the authors quite a bit while reading some of their conservative arguments. These arguments generally took the form of: “but, people are smarter than that”. Specifically, people are smart enough to see through the attempted manipulations of marketers which means that the hazard the conservative approach claims to be guarding against is false.
As I thought about it more, I started to doubt my own argument – are people really smart enough? Again, more specifically, can they ever grow to be smart enough if they are bombarded with commercial messages from the moment they exit the play-dough fun factory or pop out like toast? The hazard posed by seemingly overpowering commercial image-based advertising can be resisted by an adult with a reasonable sense of self and of the world, but how can a child ever become that adult when their concept of self and reality is formed by commercial speech from the start?
On the other hand, if you try to protect a child from commercial speech so they can develop self esteem and a good model of how the world works, when should that protection stop – when do you expose them to the full stream of commercial messages and let them decide for themselves? In other words, if a conservative interpretation of the first amendment is right for children and a liberal is right for adults, when do you transition from one to the other? Is it gradual or all at once? And perhaps most importantly: who decides and “enforces” the decision?
The authors of The Death of Discourse don’t provide a packaged answer to the first amendment paradox and I admit that I also don’t have one for how to have both freedom and adults that know how to live freely without damaging themselves or others. I strongly believe in the philosophy of liberty, but this one has me scratching my head (in a good way). It seems that in its attempt to be completely consistent, the philosophy of liberty is incomplete – it doesn’t exactly describe how to deal with the very young. On the flip side, if you try to make it complete to cover the young and adults, its not very consistent. Which reminds me of another book I am reading.
In a good example of accidental synoptical reading, I found what one might call an explanation of this in another book on my stack: Godel, Escher and Bach. I’m only 200 pages in (about 1/4 of the way through) so I won’t claim that I understand the author’s ideas completely (and based on what I’ve read so far, I’m not sure that even when I am done with it – and read it again – that I will understand the ideas completely), but the conclusion of Godel’s incompleteness theorem (which is what the author seems to be trying to help people understand the proof of, but for now lets just accept it as axiomatic – or proven by people smarter than me) is pretty simple: any formal system can either be complete or consistent, but not both.
The philosophy of liberty certainly fits the bill of being a formal system (it has axioms and rules to generate new axioms) so if Godel is right (I hope to be convinced of that in the next 600 pages or so) then by its nature it is either inconsistent and complete or consistent and incomplete. While this is troubling to me since I was first drawn to it due to its seeming consistency, I have hope since GEB’s author has hinted at the idea that there is a way to reconcile formal systems, but only by the introduction of what he call’s a “strange loop”, which he points at Escher’s drawings or Bach’s fugues / canons as examples of in the art and musical realms. Something tells me I’ll be trying to figure out this whole “strange loop” concept to reconcilethe philosophy of liberty for a while. Then again, maybe next time I head to HPB, I should stay out of the philosophy section and just buy a science fiction novel or two 😉
*Side note: on first read, the third section being entirely devoted to pornography seemed a rather odd choice, in that its a very specific form of speech. I suppose they authors were trying to draw out a point about art vs. pornography that was similar to the point they made in the previous section on the difference between informational commercial speech vs. image based motivational commercial speech, but it seemed an odd tangent as it started. Maybe pornography was just too distracting to me 😉