The Corruption of the Public Discourse (The Spice Must Flow)

Unfortunately, “free speech” is not always healthy or responsible speech. Today, much of it is even diseased and corrupt (and corrupting) speech. Few even feel they are accountable or answerable for their “free speech.” It resembles only monologue in that respect: lecturing, haranguing, browbeating, preachiness, propaganda.


Responsible speech is accountable or answerable speech, and nothing is more perversely hypocritical than someone who shouts loudly for their “free speech”, but also for a captive audience; or who calls for “respect”, while haranguing and brow-beating his listeners; or for a renewed moral or social “responsiblity” from others while declining to be themselves publicly answerable and accountable for their gratuitous “free speech.”

We have to get away from the exclusive notion of a “free speech” in order to recover the original significance of this as “free dialogue” and as the authentic public conversation. “Free speech” by itself carries no sense of personal responsibility as being one’s own obligation to be answerable, or even of any obligation on the speaker’s part to respect the rights and freedoms of the listener.

But as “free dialogue” my responsibility — which is answerability — to a listener or respondent is recognised and acknowledged. Most of what passes today for “free speech” is only a narcissistic monologue and a self-seeking propaganda and will to power.

It was in recognition of this problem and of the present “hullabaloo of mere verbiage” that the speech-thinker, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, sought to shift the social emphasis from the speaker to the listener. He recognised that the civilisational malaise of Late Modernity was a problem of blocked, diseased, and corrupted speech. Speech, he insisted, is “the life-blood of society,” and if that blood is toxic, the death of the body cannot be far off. He named four diseases of society that he identified as being the outcome of diseased and corrupted speech: war, anarchy (disintegration), revolution, and decadence. He proposed to shift the dialogical emphasis, also, from the speaker to the listener with his formula for a new science of society: respondeo, etsi mutabor — “I give answer, although I will be changed”, or conversely, audi, ne moriamur! — “listen, lest we die!” The principle recognises that society lives by sincere speech, and dies without that speech, but also that the real social power rests finally with the listener.

To the four diseases, four different styles of speech bring relief. Men reason, men pass laws, men tell stories, men sing. The external world is reasoned out, the future is ruled, the past is told, the unanimity of the inner circle is expressed in song. People speak together in articulated language because they fear decay, anarchy, war, and revolution. The energies of social life are compressed into words. The circulation of articulated speech is the lifeblood of society. Through speech, society sustains its time and space axes. These time and space axes give direction and orientation to all members of society. Without articulated speech, man has neither direction nor orientation in time or space. Without the signposts of speech, the social beehive would disintegrate immediately. (Speech and Reality).

Properly understood, his formula to replace Descartes’ inadequate “I think, therefore I am,” is potentially transformative and a very much needed corrective to the problems of “the broken society,” as the present historical malaise has been called. The emphasis shifts once again in history from the speaker to the listener, providing for a new ethic of conviviality and sociability rooted in an authentic public discourse, and well suited to a planetary era when many cultures, many traditions — presently, too many solitudes — must come to learn to live together in one human and humane society, as crew members on one spaceship earth.

The problem of multi-culturalism today is that it is not a real inter-culturalism. Too many solitudes and monologues, not enough intercourse.

The demise of our age is intimately connected with the corruption of the public discourse through the debasement of speech. Speech has become ineffectual to re-orient us in the global era. It’s all connivingly self-interested spin, hypocritically self-seeking propaganda, deceiving and dissembling will to power and con-job. And indeed, it is. It’s the wider problem of the culture of narcissism, and of the “culture of lying” that columnist Andrew Coyne raised during the last Canadian federal election. But it goes well beyond that of the political discourse alone.

Too many forms of diseased, insincere speech, among them a ubiquitous and self-destructive propaganda and advertising, have made speech impotent to forge bonds between different social groupings and classes. “Whatever” is the response of the disillusioned, the cynical, and the deracinated. Properly recognised, this is what was dramatically drawn out in the recent riots in the UK and elsewhere. The UK PM David Cameron has spoken of “the broken society”, and this is all our futures unless we learn how it came to be so broken, fractured and fragmented, and to give the proper and appropriate life-preserving and -enhancing response in answer.

The problem is not hard to identify. The various social classes and groupings do not communicate with one another, or when they do, often do so only insincerely and hypocritically, debasing the public discourse even further. This is the real nihilism of our day, and it arises in the debasement of speech and thus of the possibility of public discourse and a real and genuine social conversation.

Speech, today, is anything but “free.” It’s diseased. It’s even curious that we speak today of something going “viral” as if it were infectiously epidemic. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy once observed that the word “sincere” has the meaning “against decay.” We know, then, how to diagnose social decadence as the problem of insincere and hypocritical speech. Sincere speech is socially restorative and revivifying speech, but there’s precious little of that to be found presently.

“The spice must flow.” But the spice of social life is the flow of inspired and inspiring speech in a social dialogue between classes, groups, traditions, peoples. This is encountering many obstacles today, so that it is as vain to shout about “free speech” as it is to shout “peace, peace where there is no peace,” as the New Testament put it. If the UK is broken and fractured, it is become so because classes and groups do not talk to one another but impose boundaries and obstacles to the circulation of speech — enclaves, ghettoes, gated communities, exclusive estates — too many solitudes become just so many fractured and fractious monologues that represent an imploding of civilisation from within.

That is “the culture of narcissism” in a nutshell. Many mutually exclusive solitudes and class monologues. All participate in it. It is the very character of our present civilisational decay and disintegration that the spice does not flow. The obstacles are not essentially geographical either, but are spiritual: greed, malice, and delusion are the three Buddhist evils, and they are the real obstacles to the flow of the word and of the truth that sets free.

Nor do I see much of a consciousness of the problem and thus no timely remedy for the malaise, apart from some earnest small group efforts to establish dialogues between different groups and traditions. The problem, as the Buddhist sociologist David Loy noted, is that the “three evils” that make for the obstruction of communication (and thus of community and a sense of shared life) have been institutionalised and are now systemic. We thus pursue our self-destruction and dehiscence with something akin to a suicidal civilisational death-wish.

The culture of narcissism makes this seem more or less inevitable, for it is a culture of inarticulate monologues. We would have to become all ear to overcome this narcissism. But Narcissus had no ear either for the warnings of the nymph Echo.

Rosenstock’s “respondeo, etsi mutabor” — I give answer, although I will be changed — is the timely remedy for our present malaise, shifting the emphasis for the revelation of truth from the mouth to the ear, thus from “free speech” to free dialogue.

Because the spice must flow.


15 responses to “The Corruption of the Public Discourse (The Spice Must Flow)”

  1. amothman33 says :

    We are speakers and listners at the same timeThe problem rises when my ear doesnot respect my tongue, nor my tongue respects my ear.Internal respect is needed before asking for external respect.ourproblem is inside not outside,

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Our problem is inside not outside

      It’s not like everyone doesn’t know this either — again, whether we’re all conscious of it or not.

      A strange correlation, I know, but it’s just an example. I happened to catch a remake of the 1950’s classic The Day the Earth Stood Still yesterday and, while the remake falls well short of the original, it still touches on these themes as do so many other works of film, art and music. It’s like a cultural soundtrack — a subcurrent and, unfortunately, subconscious but nonetheless ubiquitous, inherent and/or intuitive self-knowledge we’re apparently determined to deny.

      From the script:

      Professor Barnhardt: There must be alternatives. You must have some technology that could solve our problem. (<– Typical contemporary response.)

      Klaatu: Your problem is not technology. The problem is you. You lack the will to change.

      Professor Barnhardt: Then help us change.

      Klaatu: I cannot change your nature. You treat the world as you treat each other.

      Professor Barnhardt: But every civilization reaches a crisis point eventually.

      Klaatu: Most of them don’t make it.

      Professor Barnhardt: Yours did. How?

      Klaatu: Our sun was dying. We had to evolve in order to survive.

      Professor Barnhardt: So it was only when your world was threatened with destruction that you became what you are now.

      Klaatu: Yes.

      Professor Barnhardt: Well that’s where we are. You say we’re on the brink of destruction and you’re right. But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve.

      Of note: the professor later urges Helen not to try to convince Klaatu to stop the aliens’ planned destruction of the human race with reason.

      Mr. Wu: I’m afraid they are not a reasonable race. I’ve been living amongst them for seventy years now. I know them well.

      Klaatu: And?

      Mr. Wu: Any attempt to intercede with them would be futile. They are destructive, and they won’t change.

      Klaatu: Is that your official report?

      Mr. Wu: The tragedy is, they know what’s going to become of them.

      [Both Klaatu and Wu turn to look at Helen, Jacob and Wu’s grandson who are seated at another table]

      Mr. Wu: They sense it. But they can’t seem to do anything about it.

      Emphasis and commentary mine.

      The original film’s plot was “updated” by changing Klaatu’s purpose for coming to Earth the threat of global warming to the complex ecology of the Cosmos (not just Earth as so many misinterpret it) as opposed to a nuclear disaster, but of course, neither of those threats are the real issue either.

      We all know what it is and how to resolve it. We just don’t all acknowledge it and, given how long the subcurrent has been flowing — thousands, not hundreds, of years — it would seem a foregone conclusion that all of us never will. Fortunately, I don’t think all of us have to for the transformation to occur on a global scale. It has itself been underway for thousands of years. The question for me is whether it is consciously acknowledged or actively ignored in favor of wallowing around in the dark and angst and…bleakness.

      That’s not going away. Neither is it ever going to change, but while we can’t ignore it, we can certainly deny it the power over us it so obviously craves. Perhaps in favor of drawing attention away from it and toward the transformative? I can’t speak for everyone, but that certainly proves a morale booster for me.

      From the essay:

      Nor do I see much of a consciousness of the problem and thus no timely remedy for the malaise, apart from some earnest small group efforts to establish dialogues between different groups and traditions.

      In addition to which there are plenty of folks whose natural inclination is to explore other cultures and traditions. (Never underestimate the power of curiosity…despite that it killed the cat.)

      This is why I insist that far more natural changes than political “policy” occur everyday, everywhere and do not agree that “(generational) mortality is the only guarantee of human progress.” Not only do we change from generation to generation, but intra-generational transformations occur everyday as well.

      Consider such events as the retreats sponsored by Plum Village for Arab and Israeli children. Bring them together and they quickly learn (if they don’t know already) that they’re not enemies, despite what their “states” would have them believe. I’m sure they take that home with them and, unless they’re eventually overwhelmed by the pain and violence they must endure otherwise, carry the experience with them the rest of their natural lives.

      There are so many examples of this kind of interconnectivity, it’s actually hard to know where to start reporting them all. One thing is certain, though. They’ll never be perceived, much less acknowledged, unless we actively seek them out — regardless of the avalanche of bullshit by which they are obscured.

      • Scott says :

        Man… lots to reply to there, infi. (Where to begin?). Well, first by recalling Khayyam’s Caution: “only a hair separates the false from the true”. Unfortunately, that’s a two edged sword. It’s precisely why transformation is possible. It’s also why deformation and distortion is possible, too.

        Someone once said that living in times of rapid change like the present is about as comfortable as sitting on the edge of a razor (and I’m feeling pretty edgy right now myself). That razor is Khayyam’s “hair”. It can go either way. It’s like those swinging doors into the saloon you see in Western movies. People today write about “the tipping point” or “omega point”… etc. So far, I haven’t witnessed it except to conclude that I don’t think we can now outrun what I’ve earlier called “The Big Ugly”. I held out some hope that we could avert or deflect away the inevitable … that is, the fateful climax to Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism” — but only so long as there was no further increase in the quantum or intensification of mass anxiety and paranoia about the global changes currently underway. Unfortunately, this neurosis and hysteria appears to be intensifying in many ways, especially in our quadrant. It’s what I referred to in the old Dark Age Blog as “The Voice of the Beast”. (“the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”).

        (Just occurs to me that “the Beast” I’m referring to is Rumi’s “dragon” from his curious poem about the snake-catcher of Baghdad and the Frozen Snake).

        But, of course, we’ve discussed this issue earlier. We will pass through the crucible (which, it just occurs to me, seems remarkably akin to that aboriginal vision I recorded earlier in the post If.. about the world in a canoe going down a rapids. “Canoe” is the crucible).

        Rosenstock’s observation that human mortality is the sole guarantee of human progress has a hidden gotch’ya. Time.

        Oh… it just occurs to me why Nietzsche thought we had “two centuries of nihilism”. I couldn’t decide why he decided upon that rather than, say, one century or three. Ironic. Nietzsche, I suspect, took as his measuring stick the New Testament saying as being sociological fact: “the sins of the fathers shall be visited down to the third and fourth generations”. Normally, a “generation” would be 25 years, which would make 2 centuries 8 generations. But if you measure a generation as a lifetime, this would be 3 generations of around 70 years.

        I’ll reflect on some of the other things you wrote and post later.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          The thing about a double-edged sword is not so much that it swings both ways and, therefore, we might expect one outcome or another (transformation or deformation), but that both sides comprise a whole and we might fully expect both to occur simultaneously just as we might fully expect to be hit by both sides of a double-edged sword as it plunges through our chests.

          Scott wrote: I held out some hope that we could avert or deflect away the inevitable … but only so long as there was no further increase in the quantum or intensification of mass anxiety and paranoia about the global changes currently underway.

          In Tibetan there is an interesting word: ye tang che. The ye part means ‘totally, completely,’ and the rest of it means ‘exhausted.’ It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope that there is somewhere better to be, that there is someone better to be, we will never relax with where or who we are. ~ Pema Chodron

          And only when we relax with where and who we are do we experience the presence of mind to live in possibility.

          When we give up hope in the West, however, most of us tend to replace it with worry. This despite that we know “worry can not add a cubit to [our] stature” (paraphrase) and “one who has any faith should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever” (Gandhi). (I think we also tend to equate hope and faith. They are not one and the same.)

          I don’t know what to say about the anxiety and paranoia other than that they require far too much energy to maintain and are more likely to burn or fizzle out than overtake us, but isn’t change the only real inevitability here?

          The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” ~ Terminator II

          How much more navel lint do we have to pick before we recognize our navel-gazing just another form of hubris? (I’m referring here to the anthropocentric diagnostics. The time for diagnosis is over. We know the prognosis as well as the cure.)

          Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself. ~ Desiderius Erasmus

          That there’s “precious little to be found of it” is a little depressing and, unfortunately, most of the focus is in the opposite direction, but it would more depressing (and devastating) if there were none.

  2. amothman33 says :

    Then it is a question of false or true. It is not a question of to know but a question of tasting and testing our knowledge in exercising our obligation toward truth or falsity.The problem starts when the human thinks he is the source of knowledge and there is no other source, negating all obligations, negating God the source of everythings.It seems God gives the human the freedom to think what he wants and to choose what he wants and leaves him to his choice until the bad signs of his choice start appearing. We are at this stage where commotions are rampant and distubancies everywhere. It is a time for change. It is a time for truth.The law of blowback,negating the false and affirming the truth

  3. amothman33 says :

    Knowledge without obligation is an endless road.

  4. Scott says :

    OK, how’d this thread get out of whack? Where’s the reply button?

    That Tibetan term ye tang che as “completely exhausted” meaning “no hope” is fascinating, as Chodron explains it. That’s also Nietzsche’s characterisation of Nihilism, and “No Future No Hope” is definitely the fundamental expression of that “two centuries of nihilism” he forecast. (Again, Nietzsche had a paradoxical view of nihilism — what he called “active” and “passive” nihilism — and the devaluation of values as being even a necessary (meaning, inevitable) process, even if not very pleasant. Devaluation (deconstruction) was necessary for a revaluation — ie, a new Genesis or new dawn. So, he tried to remain cheerful despite what he foresaw as the coming self-destruction of the modern era.

    One of those aspects of this self-destruction of the modern era (“all higher values devalue themselves”) is his observation that “the triumph of liberal institutions and values would also be their self-destruction” (my trans. from German). That effectively took place in Thatcher’s, Reagan’s, and Fukuyama’s “end of history” or “no alternative” false triumphalism. I examined that in some detail in the old Dark Age Blog.

    Fact is, I’m still too focussed on the morbid aspects of the present changes underway, even if I see within them the seedlings of the contrary dynamic, ie coincidentia oppositorum and enantiodromia (or “karmic law”, if you will) in action — the “two-edged sword”, or the character of Rumi’s poem about “Green Ears”.

    (The latest development… the anti-corruption uprising in India seems to be a spreading wave from the Arab Spring, but also appears to have some nasty associations with a perverse form of Hindu chauvinism).

    I’m still trying to determine the boundaries or limits to Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism”, because… if there are no limits, then Gebser’s and Seth’s more fatal prophecy for our time will be fulfilled.

    Even here in Canada, the stuporous Globe and Mail has begun lamenting our seeming descent into “cultural philistinism and reactionary politics”.

    Gee… about time someone woke up and smelled the coffee in the liberal press.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      I’m still trying to determine the boundaries or limits to Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism,” because… if there are no limits, then Gebser’s and Seth’s more fatal prophecy for our time will be fulfilled.

      You often mention Gebser’s pointed observation that the process may be abortive but, of course…it may not. I don’t think that’s something we can know and that actually depends on whether those seedlings are cultivated and nourished. As for boundaries to our nihilism: aren’t we running up against those left and right?

      The mainstream press — best known for reporting nothing but the bad news (and, of course, anthropocentric diagnostics) — is not providing much coverage on the many and varied sincere dialogues, “transition” initiatives, “emergent” movements, and so forth that are springing up like daisies at the same time. (You’ve introduced us to several of them and, co-incidentally, McLuhan’s “prophecy” of electronic media “[bringing] man together in a tribal village that is a rich and creative mix, where there is actually more room for creative diversity than within the homogenized mass urban society of Western man” appears to be coming to pass as well…though that also has a dark side.)
      While such movements may appear tiny compared to the avalanche, I’m not so sure they are given the fact that they are consistently overlooked (or downplayed) by the mainstream in favor of feeding the “mass anxiety and paranoia.”

      Don’t get me wrong. I agree that we are “going through the crucible” whether we want to or not and there’s no question in my mind the passage will be horrifically costly. In fact, it never ceases to amaze how many people think we must somehow be insulated from the sixth extinction event itself (if it’s acknowledged at all) when common sense is telling us we’re as likely to be a casualty as any other species. I’m just sayin’…the spice is flowing, despite the obstacles.

      Fact is, I’m still too focussed on the morbid aspects of the present changes underway

      Strange that this post itself is a glowing example of counter-balance in that event. 😉

      • tony says :

        “one who has any faith should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever” (Gandhi). ”

        I had to pick up on that. “ashamed” doesn’t quite sound right. One who worries needs to thoroughly re-examine him/herself and re-focus, but shame plays little part in it. One of Amothman´s frequent themes is the need to stay on course and not give in to distractions. For this I’m grateful.
        (and yet I’ve been feeling a bit edgy myself. Must be something in the air.)

        • Scott says :

          Must be something in the air.

          Or the food. Or the water. But… things are taking a very ominous turn around the globe. “The future,” as someone once said, “just ain’t what it used to be.” And yet, just what it is is devilishly tricky to identify (as futures almost always are. A Canadian prof wrote a humourous book a few years ago called <A History of the Future, which was a retrospective look at what people thought was going on in their time, but actually wasn’t what was going on. The future, in other words, just wasn’t what they thought it was or was going to be. (I haven’t read it yet, but I should. I’m sure it will be a humbling experience).

          Ditto for Gebser. We can’t be sure that Gebser’s indications for the emergence of “integral consciousness” also aren’t a misinterpretation of the trends. But… Nietzsche’s seem to have been pretty much on target.

      • Scott says :

        I made up an email at the office about some of the notes you posted lately with their points — things gleaned from the news feeds — but then forgot to mail it to myself before I left. Anyway, regarding your “Klaatu” dialogue, you may have read recently NASA’s report “what if…” report regarding all the possible outcomes of a contact with ETI. One of those possible scenarios (there was quite a few) was akin to “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, ie, the ETs would decide we were too destructive to permit to endure.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      That Tibetan term ye tang che as “completely exhausted” meaning “no hope” is fascinating, as Chodron explains it. That’s also Nietzsche’s characterisation of Nihilism

      I believe Pema’s meaning was intended more in terms of cessation of striving.

      What stops you from being, from being present, is nothing but your hope for the future. Hoping for something to be different keeps you looking for some future fantasy. But it is a mirage; you’ll never get there. The mirage stops you from seeing the obvious, the preciousness of Being. ~ A.H. Almaas

      • Scott says :

        I believe Pema’s meaning was intended more in terms of cessation of striving

        The striving that is no striving. The aspiration that is no aspiration. LOL. Remember what don Juan said about our struggle with infinity as being essentially a surrender. And yet it is a struggle.

        Not sure where “hope” otherwise stands in relation to faith and charity. Nietzsche also did not think much of hope.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          The striving that is no striving. The aspiration that is no aspiration…. our struggle with infinity [is] essentially a surrender. And yet it is a struggle.

          How ’bout we rephrase that first part as aspiration without strife?

          When there is surrender and letting go, there is no activity and ego is not there. The cessation of resistance, the cessation of rejection, the cessation of defense, is also the dissolution of that part of the personality. It may bring fear because you believe that you will disappear. And you may be concerned about who will do what is required if you don’t do it. You need trust and confidence in Essence here.

          When you really see that the nature of the personality is reactivity, a cyclic reactivity, when you see the whole cycle of ego activity based on hope, desire and rejection, it is possible that the activity will cease, and peace and stillness will arise. Then it is possible to understand what Being is. When this happens, you’ll discover that even if there is action and activity, where you come from is peace and stillness. ~ Diamond Heart, Book Three: Being and the Meaning of Life by A.H. Almaas

  5. Scott says :

    I guess you’ve taken Mr. Almaas to heart, infi. He is endearing (also wise). You’ve been citing him quite a bit of late. I need to bear down and take him on, too. Since discovering Almaas, I’ve already purchased four of his books. One — Luminous Night’s Journey — I’ve already read four times, and it is a great memoir. The others are more involved and require much careful reflection, particularly his big book on human narcissism The Point of Existence: Transformations of Narcissism in Self-Realization. I recently acquired my own copy (my earlier one was borrowed from a Buddhist friend and had to be returned, so I never got all the way through it. Now I will. Best description of the problem of human narcissism I’ve read anywhere).

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