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Against Discursive Neutrality

July 30, 2009

Macon D over at “stuff white people do” recently posted on how some people argue that hate speech is protected free speech. It’s weird, of course, and it reveals some of the quite serious weaknesses of liberal discourses.

I think we need to abandon liberal ways of framing political critique. Let’s quit using all of the following vocabulary associated with liberal neutrality: being tolerant or welcoming to everyone, giving everyone a seat at the table, being neutral or unbiased between different political ideologies, and so on.

The problem with these is that they focus on how the political process happens, rather than its results. In political philosophy they have a term for this: proceduralism. The idea is that the best way to achieve justice will be to include everyone, give everyone a voice, let each voice have equal time, make sure no one’s views are discriminated against in the process, etc.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that focusing on the process, rather than the result, might be problematic. The road to hell is paved with the best of intentions, right? That’s why I’d rather talk about interests and benefits. Forget whether or not I’m being tolerant or welcoming—you should ask me who benefits from my practices and who does not. Whose interests are being served and whose are not?

We need not discursive neutrality (i.e., neutrality between different ideologies) but neutrality with respect to interests (i.e., social systems shouldn’t serve the interests of some groups more than or at the expense of others).

Discursive neutrality requires me to “welcome” and take into account the views of Klansmen. I’d rather not. I’ll take into account their interests—I don’t think that we should put in place a system that exploits them (we shouldn’t make slaves out of them)—but I have no interest in taking into account their ideology.

So, I want to stop asking these questions:

  • Are we being tolerant or intolerant of their views?
  • Are we being biased or unbiased toward their views?
  • Are we being welcoming or exclusive of their ideology?

and instead ask these questions:

  • Who benefits and who does not from this practice or this ideology?
  • Whose interests are being served and whose are not?
  • Is domination or exploitation taking place, encouraged, or masked?
  • What alternate practice or ideology can reverse domination or exploitation?

Note that answers to the last question probably don’t involve “giving everyone a seat at the table.” We probably can’t reverse white privilege if we take white views as equally valid as minority views. On the contrary, we’ll probably have to privilege minority views.

But privileging minority views is slanted or biased towards them, right? It’s biased if we focus on discursive neutrality—that’s why I don’t give a crap about discursive neutrality. Discursive neutrality can produce a bias against interests. I’d rather be neutral toward different groups’ interests, even if it means I have to be biased against some groups’ ideologies.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2009 5:32 pm

    I like the idea of focusing on the result. But I don’t think asking “who benefits” works until there is a general sense of “what do all the parties involved want”.

    There is no objective “benefit” in an absolute sense, people will sacrifice things that seem vital for things that on the face of it seem trivial, but to them it is the other way round.

    One of the reasons I totally got bored of politics is that no-one ever had the discussion of “what do we as a society want society to look like” – it didn’t even seem like that was something already decided and taken for granted, rather it seemed like a question no-one ever had the imagination to pose.

    But of course they do, all the time, from Plato’s “Republic” to “Common Purpose”. But somehow the debate is always had …somewhere else.

    By the time we get to the day to day politics that real human beings (instead of weird ex-public schoolboys in thinktanks) can be involved in – all that stuff, the question “what direction do we want to go in” has been treated as something not even raisable. Things work the way they do, right is what it is, wrong is what it is, rights are what they are, and economic necessity is what it is, “development” of a ceirtain kind is inevitable, people have to suck up and adjust because THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE.

    And no-one gets what they actually want in the end. Sometimes I think it would be better to have a Napoleon, at least he had a vision!

    But of course that is just despair talking.
    I hate politics. It is like poison to me, does me damage.

  2. July 30, 2009 9:27 pm

    Right said!

    I’m going to save this part:

    Discursive neutrality requires me to “welcome” and take into account the views of Klansmen. I’d rather not.

    Yes. It also seems like something that what passes for the Left asks for much more so than what passes for the Right ever does. I don’t remember a Republican president making a big deal about reaching across all sorts of aisles. I can understand that Obama, for instance, thought he had to step back from seeming like a racist in white folks’ eyes for daring to say the Cambridge police are stupid (nevermind the impossible-to-absorb difference between that and “acted stupidly”), and then more or less apologize. But does this beerplomacy really make him look any better?

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 31, 2009 10:36 am

    Sophia, I absolutely agree that we have to pay attention to what groups want (and, in some cases, that will be related to their ideology). I assume that we’ll figure out what groups want when we’re determining what’s in their best interests—what’s in an individual’s interests is particular, not universal.

    I also agree that too often practices get solidified—people see no alternative to the existing order, which creates political passivity.

    Macon, beerplomacy! Yes!! That’s so awesome.

    I honestly believe that attempts at discursive or ideological neutrality tend to tie one’s hands. Obama can’t call racism racism if he’s going to appear to be neutral.

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