Each season of popular discussion has its special topics. “Certainty” is again in fashion. The way has been paved by more than a generation of contest about “relativism,” “social construction,” and “multiculturalism.” We are barely through with the Sokal Affair.
Now, following the attacks of September 11, our screens, pages, and airwaves are again filled with demands for unimpeachable knowledge, and overheated by those who pretend to offer it. “It’s time now to tell the truth” writes Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. “Has there ever been a time when the distinction between good and evil was more clear?” writes Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post. One need not accept the nonsense offered to understand the impulse to seek certainty. 1 Certainty is not an abstract concern. It is closely related to the desire for security. In times of particular insecurity, people reassess their knowledge in light of their projects and purposes. 2
Some facts about humanity are even more sure and durable than the laws of nature. A fundamental fact of human life and its first consequence have been known for millennia: we must live together every day and only our capacity for language makes this fact tolerable. 3 the beginning of civility, [and] make us….endurable to each other.” Since the XVIIIth century, with its enormous expansion of commercial exchange, political inquiry has paid special attention to what makes strangers tolerable to one another, and thus considered in a quotidian and general form the more pointed political problem of religious toleration which had emerged after the Reformation. The topic of civility and manners was elaborated with special finesse by the writers of the “Scottish Enlightenment,” who in turn influenced Hegel’s vision of the interdependent development of individuals and society. All of this is worth mentioning because it has come back to us in recent years through interest in the Pragmatism of John Dewey (who was profoundly influenced by American Hegelianism) and the emergence of so-called Communitarianism of thinkers like Charles Taylor (likewise, influenced by Hegel). What one sees here is the long-term transformation of an earlier notion of society – including first what we would call associations and later exemplified by the courts of European monarchies, regulated by “good manners” and “civility” – into the generalized notion of society as a site of human interaction grounded neither in domestic nor political affiliations. It concerns the emergence of what Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French sociological tradition referred to as le lien social. Authors like Montesquieu and Tocqueville had a particular sensitivity to the way precise manners overlap with a general “social bond.” In Germany, Hegel’s appropriation of the Scottish idea of “civil society” got its widest diffusion in the writings of Karl Marx. This may come as a surprise to those who have followed, since the recent fall of Communist regimes, the extraordinary career of the idea that “civil society” is a necessary pre-condition for the success of both capitalism and democracy. Jane Jacobs’ concept of “social capital” is a variant of this idea which, in a version at once more pointed and diluted by Robert Putnam, has recently become prominent in American political science. Despite the variety and richness of all this thinking about what makes us “endurable to each other,” much of it pays insufficient attention to something well-known to ancient authors of the rhetorical tradition: in its general scope and in its constantly changing attachment to specific circumstances, the lien social is grounded in the everyday human experience of using language.]
Using language involves much more than communication, the sending of messages or information. 4 Language weaves a web around us, a habitat of our own making. 5 Moreover, as language circulates through us – we listen and speak, read and write, ask and answer – a whole person takes shape, one capable of responding to his particular circumstances. 6 How deeply this circulation forms us is suggested by the ancient Greek word logos, which referred to both “speech” and “reason.” When viewed in the frame of the developing life of human beings, these are two aspects of the same process. 7 Likewise, their word ethos pointed two ways at once: to the character of the individual and to what he had in common with the people around him. 8
The inescapable truth of human implication in language concerns politics in the broadest sense, not merely the parts played by leaders or states or citizens. “Man is by nature a political animal,” wrote Aristotle in the Politics, and we “alone of the animals possess speech.” Dogs and chickens can howl or squawk with pain or pleasure; they have a voice. It is the miracle of human speech that only we can indicate to each other what is “advantageous and what is harmful, what is just and unjust.” 9 The people of Homer were convinced that to live without politics one would have to be less or more than human, either a beast or a god. 10 What distinguishes beasts and gods is their tendency to “go it alone,” to opt for unilateralism, with its inherent descent towards violence. 11 Human beings have the alternative of politics, and we are often compelled by desire or constrained by circumstances to deploy it. People rely on violence when – for whatever reason – they are desperate or hubristic. 12
While politics in general is rooted in the fact that speech is essential for everyday life together, democracy is the regime which most thoroughly exploits that fact. 13 You may ask, given what I just claimed about the alternative between speech and violence, Why then do democracies produce so much violence? And although decidedly anti-democratic regimes like the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge were overwhelmingly violent, history also shows a special kind of entanglement of democracy with violence. 14 This is not, I tend to believe, because democracy is based on violence, nor because it releases a violence already boiling within the mass of humanity. It is, rather, a secondary and unintended consequence 15 of the extraordinary complexity of self-government, with its refusal to place everything in the hands of a small group of kings or commanders – be they the rich, the virtuous, or the experts. An insistent reliance on speech over violence is as necessary for democrats as the web for the spider; it is likewise a construct of astonishing fragility. The frequency of violence points not to democracy’s hidden essence, but to how easily and often it fails. Thus, even Aristotle’s zoon politikon must constantly be on guard to spin out his history in accordance with his nature. 16
Of all that distinguishes the original democracy of the Athenians from our own efforts, the American Founders rightly focused on differences of size and complexity: Athens was a city, America is a nation; Athenian citizens had Athenian progenitors, ours have come from every corner of the earth, bearing with them a bewildering plurality of persuasions. 17 Whatever its form, the democratic regime of speech seems almost to require a commitment to equality. Everyone can talk, and, surely, everyone has something to say. The Athenians institutionalized this equality in the principle that a citizen must rule and be ruled in turn. However, they tried to reduce the disorderly consequences of equality by strictly limiting the application of this principle. Women, slaves, foreign workers – the majority of people – were excluded from the number of citizens, and inequality prevailed in ancient times. Democracy was reborn in the XIXth century when democrats began to take more seriously the principle of equality. They turned it against slavery in the fields and in the kitchen. 18 Thus, distinctively modern versions of democracy have combined an enlarged understanding of equality with the attractions of freedom. 19
These developments help to explain contemporary common sense: asked why people are drawn to democracy, why they could lay down their lives for it, we think right away of the desire for freedom. Yet, the attraction to democracy may be even deeper, or, if you will, more visceral. 20 Faced with the vicissitudes of life, our natural reaction is not to seek freedom, but to speak out. No one lives, and almost no one really expects to live, entirely unbound. Ties to others are as often the solution to as they are the cause of our problems. Democracy excites us because it offers practical possibilities for living as we must, using language to exploit our dependence on others and constantly negotiating boundaries rather than simply transgressing them. This is politics in the pursuit of freedom; in a democracy speech is not merely words, but the activity of politics. Freedom depends on politics and politics depends on speech. The public conditions of speech, therefore, are the absolute center of democracy. 21
Recognize this, and you will understand why so many institutions and practices which characterize modern democratic life involve disposing citizens to speak, educating that capacity, and creating wherever possible circumstances for its exercise. The democratic citizen is apprenticed in schools, libraries, town meetings, museums, civic associations, talk shows, and the like. We are apprenticed to the public sphere. Love of country in a modern democracy has no higher form than defense of the present and future public sphere. 22 This is ground gained with difficulty. Once had, it must be sustained. Not even the noble rights of our Constitution can guarantee it. It is no “machine.” It is a way of life. 23
Anyone can see that terrorism is dangerous and terrorists murder people. Terrorism is morally inferior to an ethic of care – which aims to mend the suffering of others. It is even inferior to an ethic of retribution – which at least pretends to first determine the responsibility of those it kills. It is much more difficult, however, to ascertain the meaning of terrorism for the democratic citizen. This must be measured by its consequences for the public sphere.
By this measure, terrorism produces two kinds of disorder. One is evident, the other hidden.
The first is the spectacle itself. The chaos on the ground seems, paradoxically, to affirm the order of the public sphere. A terrorist act monopolizes in one instant all the means of mass communication. Images of death and destruction are everywhere, yet the public sphere itself explodes with life. It concentrates us. All faces turn to the news, all talk to the event. Suddenly, each citizen is animated by the tight spring of one precise fear. Our curiosity is pointed in one direction. Two planes destroy the World Trade Center in Manhattan: the diffusion of this localized act into everyday life around the nation and around the globe seems to affirm – in some horribly inverted way – the vitality of the press, the media, the nation. Exactly that same obsessive broadcast of the news which brings us to the terrorists’ terror constitutes its apparent remedy: our newly pointed knowledge and angry unified resolve.
This “new public order” hides a second and more enduring disorder of terrorism’s making. It is hidden behind a mistaken equation of the commotion of commentators and self-inflated monologuists with the real public sphere they are supposed to serve. To speak is not the same thing as to be spoken to, which is not the same as listening, which is in turn essential to good speech. The media – simply by “doing their job,” whether in good faith or with the lust for profit – abet the terrorists. They must bring us the news. But we see it first, and hear it only later, if at all. Terrorism, well-represented, harps on our astonishment, that first of all our passions. Astonishment is a suspension of time, of judgment, of action, and of words. 24 With this weapon, terrorism takes the words from citizens’ mouths. It reduces us to speechless shock. The bestial act imposes a consensus of brutes in which the animal voice of anguish and the god-like presumptuousness of unchecked power submerge the all too fragile democratic practices of political speech. 25
Not long after September 11, new and expansive Federal police powers were proposed in Congress. Practically the only serious skeptic in a wave of affirmation, Senator Patrick Leahy sought to ensure that those powers would be properly checked. Attorney General Ashcroft’s response unwittingly shows how deeply terrorism can wound democracy. Ashcroft accused Leahy of stalling and declared that “talk won’t prevent terrorism.” 26 Whether or not these powers offend our constitutional rights, Ashcroft has it exactly wrong. Only talk can prevent terrorism, or prevent single, localized acts of violence from producing widespread terrifying effects. Infectious terrorism, spreading out from one “Ground Zero” through millions of televisions and into every home and human spirit, kills authentically public talk.
The disease is transmitted through electrifying high drama and the self-evident urgency of self-defense. Normal, everyday differences between human beings which demand bridging, navigating, negotiating words quickly seem to lose their importance. Yet, these differences – which are not a matter of “identities” but of contested choices and actions at every level – are the stuff of politics. The democrat, now as always, fights to forestall the moment of democracy’s inevitable failure, the opening to violence. Our task is to make “unspeakable events” or feelings “no words can express” give way to dialogue. 27 Seek out the hidden victim of terrorist attack, the public sphere, and set it right again. This is something no unilateral command, no executive administration, no police enforcement can do.
What, then, on the day after the day after, is the most important response to terrorism? If our project and purpose is democracy, we are called to defend politics, to defend speech over violence. Only the moralist – the person who prefers the pretense of righteousness over all else – could insist that “this will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil.” Democracy is a political regime not an ethical system; the rule of law in a pluralistic society depends mightily on the separation of the state from every form of church. Only the idiot – from the Greek word idion, or one who is concerned only with himself – could say that responding to terrorism excludes address to the national crisis in education.
Schools belong in the defense budget of those who understand the democracy they love. Only the lawless believes that trampling on rights will help us now. The Constitution grants rights not only to protect individuals but to create a public sphere in which those who claim their rights may be judged and their claims redeemed by their fellow citizens.
I am talking about the long-run. In the short-run it is perhaps inevitable that a violent reaction – bestial or god-like, depending on where you stand – will come on the heels of such an explosive act. But, here again, terrorism confuses. Is it a momentary event? Or is it the beginning of a “whole new world?” The least reflection will tell you it is neither, even if it seems like both. Violence arrests words. It snaps us into the present. Speech is concerned with life; in fact, it is the first sign of authentically human life. To say this is to say that speech is not just concerned with today, but with tomorrow as well. Thus, as the terrorist saps our words he attacks the future. The terrorist would reduce our dispositions in favor of speech and our capacities for it. He would corral us into a speechless unanimity. In unanimity there is no future.
While pundits are checking the balance sheet of business after September 11, an unaccounted cost for every citizen is rising. Each human being constantly encounters – in the large and small difficulties and irritations of everyday life – his own difference from others. He expresses these differences and navigates through them. When the way is blocked, he negotiates them in the only way he can: with speech. The terrorist act uses our own fears and desires to impose unanimity on us. This is an attack on politics at its core. It raises exponentially the stakes of even the most mundane negotiations. Thus, whereas battle demands the courage of soldiers, and rescue demands the courage of civil service, the defense of politics demands the special courage of citizens. It is the courage to keep talking.
Do not mistake my words: this is not a call for talk with assassins. The situation of America in history requires that we strike back if we can. The United States will do this within the frame of national or international law, or without it. What I say here neither condemns nor condones the military actions presently underway in Afghanistan. It leaves the choice of the instrument of state policy – between bombs and diplomacy, assassination and trial – to those who will make that choice, regardless of what I may think. My point is about the political life of democracy.
But we should insistently remind our leaders that, in the end, even war depends on politics. Any general will refer you to the motto of Clausewitz: “War is an extension of politics by other means.” And oh how democracies can make war. We must struggle, however, not to make it against ourselves. The best way to do this is to defend politics.
Peter Alexander Meyers is Chercheur Associé of the Groupe de Sociologie Politique et Morale (EHESS, Paris) and MaÃ®tre de Conférences at the Université de Lille 3. As Executive Director of The Berkshire Forum, he is developing, together with Nancy S. Struever (Johns Hopkins), a program of collaborative research called “Political Thought in Rhetorical Perspective.” His book Left Speechless: America in the Light of its Holocaust Museum is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. He is presently completing two other book projects: Addicted to Shock: Images of Violence and the Fragility of Public Discourse and, with Nancy S. Struever, The Modern Enchantment of Time: Rhetorical Returns to Politics From Hobbes to Vico, and From Vico to Benjamin. He may be reached at email@example.com