Whither Civilisation of the Dialogue?
Today, I had the pleasant surprise of discovering that John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press Review had linked into The Chrysalis (specifically, into the recent post entitled “Truth to Power”). I had not known that Mr. Brown maintained a blog, so I spent some time browsing through it’s contents, which address the often confused boundaries between propaganda and public diplomacy.
For those who do not know of John Brown, he made a name for himself (along with John Kiesling) by his very public resignation from the US foreign diplomatic service, and in subsequent publications, in protest against the invasion of Iraq. He now teaches a course in public diplomacy at Georgetown University, where he explores the relation between propaganda and what has come to be called “public diplomacy”. It is very worthwhile and important work, and I retain a great deal of respect for Mr. Brown and his integrity.
It was while reading through some of his postings (like “The Paradoxes of Propaganda“) that I began to muse once more upon one of the basic themes of this blog (and the former Dark Age Blog): whither the civilisation of the dialogue? In the face of the present breakdown of the mental-rational mode of consciousness in the post-Enlightenment, propaganda has come to displace dialogue and reasoned discourse amongst and between peoples. That is the meaning, really, of Ron Suskind’s confrontation with the unnamed “senior advisor” in the Bush administration cited previously. The man of Enlightenment sensibilities is shocked into virtual stupefaction or mere stammering defence of his virtues by the “unilateral” and violent man of the post-Enlightenment succession (or, pre-Enlightenment Restoration perhaps), who no longer honours or values dialogue, but only what he calls “action” (meaning power). He pre-empts dialogue, in fact.
It is one of my most depressing observations of our confused times that those who loudly claim to be the appointed and authorised guardians of the Western tradition, and its ideals and values, are actually functioning as the very agents of its demise. That is, nonetheless, another aspect of Nietzsche’s formula for nihilism, in which “all higher values devalue themselves”. Men also debase themselves. In like manner, the decay of dialogue into its deformed and perverse aspect as the mere self-indulgence of “free speech” represents another form of this same nihilism.
The important point to observe about propaganda — which is a technology which cynically reduces speech to a mere instrumentalism — is that it eschews authentic dialogue, which is a process between speaker and listener in alternating roles — like alternating electric current — for the mutual discovery and disclosure of truth. “Sharing” is the meaning of the words communication and of community. And one of the characteristics of the deficient rationality of the Late Modern Era lies in observing how “free speech,” — which also justifies propaganda, hate-speech, or other forms of diseased speech — has become a deformed and decadent interpretation of the dialogical principle. Where sincere dialogue exists, propaganda cannot flourish. A “unipolar world” is really one where the speaker insists imperiously upon his right while disrespecting the rights of the listener (free speech, but captive audience) or even his own obligation and responsibility to duly become a listener in turn. (There is as much an art and politics of listening as there is to speaking). Thus, “free speech”, by exaggerating the right of the speaker to indulge even all his worst traits, has become a symptom of the culture of narcissism.
Most of what I have read recently respecting the origins and founding principles of contemporary Occidental civilisation and the Modern Era has been self-serving, self-aggrandising, and self-flattering narcissistic rubbish, particularly where the origins of modern society are made coincident with “the free market” or some such neo-liberal, economistic, or technocratic delusion. The one ruling idea and inspiration that has served as the vital engine of the progress of Occidental civilisation up until now — until the First World War that is — was that of free dialogue and of the enhancement of the possibilities of dialogue. That seems to have been overlooked and forgotten everywhere today. Everything else deemed foundational to what is called “the Western tradition” is only a secondary development –branch, and not root — a not necessarily a faithful one either. Where there is no respect for free dialogue (and it is possible to insist on one’s own rights of “free speech” while holding dialogue in utter contempt), the foundations and ideals of Occidental civilisation are undermined completely. And when power, especially during and after the World Wars, discovered the possibilities of propaganda to shape and engineer our perception and our reasoning about truth and reality — perhaps even to prevent perception of the truth of our reality and the meaning of our experience by confounding our reason and perception and thereby perverting the public conversation — the fate of the Modern Era was sealed. To be in “the post-modern condition” is to be post-Enlightenment.
There has never been so much “free speech” (we are practically drowning in it), and yet, ironically, so little in the way of an authentic public conversation or social dialogue. I find today that there is very little reciprocity between speakers and listeners — that is to say, very little in the way of “sharing” which would constitute authentic dialogue and thus restore and renovate any sense of community.
This is where I feel that the work of the “speech-thinker” Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (despite a few reservations) and that of David Bohm to restore respect for the value of dialogue in the global era is vital. Our growing contempt for politics and for the system of governance selection has much to do with the breakdown of the dialogical process in society. And this does not bode well for the future viability of democracy or, for that matter, the longer-term survival of a truly human and humane civilisation itself. For where dialogue is not honoured or respected, or otherwise fails — where communication does not result in community — only violence remains to restore relations between human beings.
This is why I have lamented our visitation by our own “four riders of the apocalypse” in the form of Double-Talk, Double-Think, Double-Standard, and Double-Bind. These are, collectively, speech diseases that, if left to have their way, will dis-integrate society completely, for they are already symptoms of the loss of integrity of the whole.