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.