Friday, May 8, 2009

The Taboo against Political Discourse

I originally wrote this entry on September 22, 2004, and published it on

The taboo against political discourse can presumably lead to a more stable society but it can also lead to a society that keeps making serious (and the same) mistakes because it can afford to do so in the absence of any true democratic deliberation or costs. This risky behavior, which often causes huge losses for others, rarely sees those losses come back to haunt it.

Here's what Lawerence Lessig says about this taboo against politics--a taboo which surrounds us at work, in our neighborhoods and even at our schools:

Democracy means rule by the people, but rule means something more than mere elections. In our tradition, it also means control through reasoned discourse. This was the idea that captured the imagination of Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French lawyer who wrote the most important account of early "Democracy in America."

. . . [Today] for most of us for most of the time, there is no time or place for "democratic deliberation" to occur.

More bizzarely, there is generally not even permission for it to occur. We, the most powerful democracy in the world, have developed a strong norm against talking about politics. It's fine to talk about politics with people you agree with. But it is rude to argue about politics with people you disagree with. Political discourse becomes isolated, and isolated discourse becomes extreme. We say what our friends want to hear, and hear very little beyond what our friends say.

Free Culture (p. 42)

Lessig believes that the architecture of blogs solves one part of this problem by engendring a public form of asynchronous communication, which can "increase the opportunity for communication". Hubert Dreyfus would say that cyber-communication (particularly when asynchronous) will not by itself lead to trust, which is required for joint action and engagement. Face to face, embodied communications (which are usually "synchronous") must complement (and are superior to) cyber-communication. Hence, the many bloggers' meetings that are spontaneously organized in most urban areas on the globe.

In fact, we have had several such meetings ourselves here at Sun Microsystems Inc.

[Note: I don't find the "synchronous" vs. "asynchronous" distinction in communication as a very revealing dichotomy in descriptions of human communications. The "embodied" vs. "cyber" dichotomy is probably more important. More on this later.]


Jan. 31, 2005: Here is a commentary in Japanese.

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