Small and white, clean and … maybe not so bright?

habermas

This post calls into question the inclusive potential of deliberative democracy, with particular emphasis on the influential model of deliberation laid out by Jürgen Habermas in Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy.[1] I outline the arguments Habermas puts forward for his particular model of deliberation, while drawing upon criticisms of it from a number of theorists, in addition to offering some of my own. I argue that deliberative democracy would be unlikely to facilitate better inclusion for marginalised groups, but would instead merely serve as an elaborate justification for the tyranny of the majority and the maintenance of the status quo.

The core assumption underlying Between Facts and Norms is that, given ‘sufficient time’ and ‘goodwill’, it will always be possible for any given group to achieve consensus. Leaving aside, for the moment, the practical limitations that the provision of ‘sufficient time’ is likely to reveal, it seems that the two conditions Habermas claims are required for reaching consensus rely on tautology for their definitions. Both ‘sufficient time’ and ‘sufficient goodwill’ are inherently abstract concepts, which can only be defined post hoc in somewhat concrete terms. This is to say that, however much time and goodwill is required to reach a consensus can only be deemed sufficient once said consensus has been reached. Likewise, any failure to reach a consensus must necessarily mean that the amount of time, goodwill, or both, were insufficient. Here, we can see that Habermas has implicitly defended his assumption with a circular argument that, while unfalsifiable, is also essentially meaningless.

Modern pluralist culture, according to Habermas, will inevitably cause various ethical traditions to come into conflict with one another, and so laws—which are given legitimacy through the universal voice of democracy—are required in order to maintain social cohesion. These laws, he suggests, must only be introduced once they have been unanimously agreed upon following public deliberation and reasoned argument between all affected citizens. The citizen, in this pure deliberative model of democracy, is ‘both the subject of the law and its author.’[2] The Habermasian citizen adheres to a distinctly liberal ideal of the autonomous individual, who, as Steven Wheatley has summarised:

… is able to give reasons for her actions, critically reflect on her own beliefs and, when exposed to a better argument, is willing to change her opinions.[3]

David Ingram notes that, ‘the model of rationality adduced by Habermas … reflects an intellectualist prejudice of the Enlightenment.’[4] Bounding acceptable discourse in such a Westernised fashion will inevitably bias it towards Western ideals; which is to say, liberalism in equals liberalism out. The primacy afforded purely discursive rationality in Western society, according to Pierre Bourdieu, is not due to its embeddedness in the nature of communication as such, but is rather a function of its capacity to secure the privilege of those who are possessors of ‘cultural capital’.[5] Further, he claims, language ‘games’, of the sort proposed by Habermas, although seemingly concerned foremost with communication, are in fact practices that have as their main purpose the maintenance of economic and political relationships of domination.[6]

The Eurocentrism of his idealised conception of the post-Enlightenment citizen aside, for Habermas, even if all the participants involved in deliberation should meet his exacting standards, and manage to reach a consensus based solely on the merits of the better argument, that consensus would still be fallible. This is due to his ‘ideal speech situation’ requirement not having been met. Briefly, it requires:

  1. no space-time limitation, so that argument may continue until every individual, everywhere, agrees
  2. no limitations on information, topics, or reasons
  3. equal participation, so that everybody has equal opportunity to influence the discussion
  4. the exclusion of any kind of coercion.[7]

Any one of these conditions—especially the first—would be difficult to meaningfully approximate in the real world, let alone all of them. Indeed, as Habermas acknowledges, the ideal speech situation is a requirement that can never be met; therefore, every de facto social consensus must be considered fallible.[8] So, either all deliberation must continue forever, or we must settle for majoritarianism at some point along the way.

By way of analogy, let us consider the online discourse of popular feminism. I choose this example because it seems to approximate the ideal speech situation as closely as any real-world example could hope to; most notably, the tricky first condition regarding time-space limitations. Further, in the self-publishing world of the internet, all information, topics and reasons are open for discussion. Equal participation is made possible, at least for those who are literate and have internet access.[9] And, inasmuch as the internet is largely unregulated, deliberation can be said to be relatively free of coercion. Finally, insofar as the goal of feminism, like any emancipatory theory[10], is to ‘do itself out of a job’, we may reasonably infer that the goal of discourse is to reach consensus, so that appropriate reforms may then be implemented that would enable the freedom of all women, and feminism would no longer need to exist.

Even with these conditions theoretically—if somewhat imperfectly—met, popular online feminism’s focus on consensus-building routinely serves to sideline minority voices. Despite widespread token agreement that a more ‘intersectional’[11] approach to feminism is required, the voices of the marginalised are typically only elevated for the purpose of appropriating them into the service of mainstream liberal ‘choice feminism’ arguments. As Gajalla, Zhang and Dajo-Gyeke observe:

[T]he ‘new languages’ of women’s emancipation in globalised media spaces are in fact re-codings of familiar liberal feminist discourses interweaved with a capitalist, consumerist rhetoric of individual choice … so that the overall effect is not participatory, but rather a lopsided hierarchy that still privileges those that designed it and produced the content for it.[12]

A common response to such criticism is that feminism is a ‘broad church’ that encourages rigorous discussion from a wide range of voices, and does not require women to agree with one another in order to be considered feminists. In practice, however, the preference for solidarity creates a self-selecting in-group that effectively serves to punish dissent. On deliberative democracy more generally, Ian O’Flynn notes:

The more familiar participants are with one another, the more likely it is that their deliberations will be successful. Knowing this, there is a strong temptation for the stronger members of society to exclude the weaker … the failure to afford dissenting voices an equal say may itself lead to the reification and polarisation of competing ethnic identities.[13]

For every blog post from a minority voice highlighting the problems with popular liberal feminism—even those republished in mainstream outlets[14]—there are a hundred more articles from bourgeois liberals espousing its virtues.[15] Further, in the ‘virtual’ public setting of the internet, cultural capital can be easily gained by declaring oneself an ‘ally’ of minorities. Surely, though, the onus is on the marginalised to determine who is and is not their ally. Furthermore, the only benefit from such an alliance seems to accrue to the self-proclaimed ally, inasmuch as creating a conspicuous ‘white saviour’ image for oneself can be considered a benefit. Ultimately, though, such rhetorical alliances appear to have little noticeable impact on shaping the primary concerns of the majority.

If our ethical project is to construct a model of democratically legitimate deliberation that facilitates inclusion and can produce a valid consensus in the real world, Habermas leaves us at somewhat of a dead end. As Christian Rostbøll notes, despite its foundational influence on modern deliberative democrats, Habermas’ notion of the ideal speech situation ‘is ignored or rejected by most contemporary versions of the theory.’[16] That is not to say that the ideal speech situation is of no use to us in critiquing actually existing discourse, or thinking in a utopian manner about how that might be reformed; it is simply to say that it cannot ever exist in any meaningful way beyond the realm of the thought experiment. And, even if it could, it would still almost certainly be heavily biased in favour of Western Enlightenment values as a result of Habermas’ Eurocentric conception of rational argument. Therefore, any attempt by deliberative democrats to build upon his work must first redress this imbalance if they are to solve the problem of inclusivity. Until that point, all deliberative democracy will do is serve as a justification for maintaining the intellectual status quo of the ruling majority.

Notes

[1] Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. W. Rehg, Polity Press, Cambridge MA, 1996.

[2] Steven Wheatley, ‘Deliberative Democracy and Minorities’, European Journal of International Law, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2003, p. 510.

[3] Ibid., p. 518.

[4] David Ingram, ‘The Possibility of a Communication Ethic Reconsidered: Habermas, Gadamer, and Bourdieu on Discourse’, Man and World, Vol. 15, 1982, p. 149.

[5] Pierre Bourdieu & Jean-Claude Passeron, Reproduction, Society and Culture, 2nd Edition, trans. R. Nice, Sage, London, 1977, p. 124.

[6] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. R. Nice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977, p. 24.

[7] Habermas, pp. 228, 230, 322a.

[8] Ibid., p. 322b.

[9] These, of course, are not trivial concerns. Barriers pertaining to language, accessibility and free time are of primary importance in terms of inclusivity, but may in many real-word cases be insurmountable.

[10] e.g., ‘That there is a life after Marxism is the whole point of Marxism.’ Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, London, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 2.

[11] Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Colour’, Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 1241, 1993, pp. 1241–1299.

[12] Radhika Gajjala, Yahui Zhang & Phyllis Dako-Gyeke, ‘Lexicons of Women’s Empowerment Online: Appropriating the Other’, Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2010, pp. 69, 70.

[13] Ian O’Flynn, Deliberative Democracy and Divided Societies, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006, pp. 120–121.

[14] See, e.g., Flavia Dzodan, ‘My Feminism Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit’, Tiger Beatdown, 10 October 2011, http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/10/10/my-feminism-will-be-intersectional-or-it-will-be-bullshit/

[15] See, e.g., the entirety of the New York Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

[16] Christian F. Rostbøll, ‘Dissent, Criticism, and Transformative Political Action in Deliberative Democracy’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, Vol. 12, No. 1, p. 19.

References

Bourdieu, P., Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. R. Nice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977.

Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J-C., Reproduction, Society and Culture, 2nd Edition, trans. R. Nice, Sage, London, 1977.

Crenshaw, K., ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Colour’, Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 1241, 1993, pp. 1241–1299.

Dzodan, F., ‘My Feminism Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit’, Tiger Beatdown, 10 October 2011, http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/10/10/my-feminism-will-be-intersectional-or-it-will-be-bullshit/

Eagleton, T., Why Marx Was Right, Yale University Press, London, 2011.

Gajjala, R., Zhang, Y. & Dako-Gyeke, P., ‘Lexicons of Women’s Empowerment Online: Appropriating the Other’, Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2010, pp. 69–86.

Habermas, J., Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. W. Rehg, Polity Press, Cambridge MA, 1996.

Ingram, D., ‘The Possibility of a Communication Ethic Reconsidered: Habermas, Gadamer, and Bourdieu on Discourse’, Man and World, Vol. 15, 1982, pp. 149–161.

O’Flynn, I., Deliberative Democracy and Divided Societies, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006.

Rostbøll, C. F., ‘Dissent, Criticism, and Transformative Political Action in Deliberative Democracy’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 19–36.

Wheatley, S., ‘Deliberative Democracy and Minorities’, European Journal of International Law, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2003, pp. 507–527.

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About samquigley

I'm Sam Quigley.
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