Several words have recently appeared in The Gun which are as ample as they are ambiguous, and therefore as excellent as they are elusive: public, private, people, nation. Such potent words are as susceptible to shenanigans as they are conducive to fortuity.
For example, Walter Lippmann wrote a famous book in the 1920s entitled Public Opinion. As I recall that book, he said there was no such thing. Pubic opinion was only a cunning name for the political power of newspaper barons. That’s certainly a provocative thesis. But it requires an explanation. Where does the press gain political power if not from the “public”. After all, the press itself doesn’t possess sovereign territories like the medieval Church did. True, the press has been called the fourth estate. In that scheme, the first three estates were the Church, the aristocracy, and the so-called commons. The first two of those estates are now politically extinct — except for the occasional queer coelacanth and decorative gingko. The commons — who turned out to be most uncommon — became the republican middle class. And then, through competition, the middle class replaced the first two “estates” with better political, social, economic and cultural product. (See my Republic, esp. Ch. 1-7) But where is the sovereignty of this “fourth” estate? Or is this just the figure of a name? Is it just a word without a universe?
I also think Lippmann is a bit too glib — even for the blow-off party sensibility that was the spiritual signature of 1920s. His assessment of public opinion is equivalent to saying that a nation is a piece of land, which on a map has a neat line around it and a color of its own. That’s true. But that’s not all that’s true about nations. The biological equivalent of such political “theory” is that humans are skins stuffed with organs and hung on skeletal hangers, therefore we’re dead meat in a century and off the hook of life. That’s quite true. But that’s also not all that’s true. And if you think it is, why feed yourself for 70 years? Because you can’t think of anything else to do with your time? Inertial unconsciousness is appropriate for squirrels, but even Aristotle knew that humans must to do better than that. What Aristotle didn’t know was how big better can be.
To bring a little order to the first two words, I’ve generated a little schemata of six steps. It’s the kind of thing that looks good in roadshow power point presentations: slick, quick, and glitchless. And students love to copy down such lists to memorize for the next exam and then forget them. As you know, I don’t do such things in my classroom. I use the chalkboard. And we only talk about memorable matters. The reason is reality. Reality isn’t a hierarchical list culminating in a progressively ascendant conceptual conclusion. Aristotle thought that. Or, at least, he hopefully said he thought that with some heavenly details provided. And so did Aquinas and Hegel. And many lesser names since then have been replicants of the idea. Remember Kohlberg’s six stages of developmental moral consciousness, a consciousness culminating in the recognition that all people are free and equal by reason of abstract universal moral principles? I don’t do such stuff in my philosophy.
Now let’s walk through my six steps. But I think you’ll notice they’re more like Escher than Kohlberg, and more akin to Eliot than Maslow.
- Private Silence. In the primal verbal condition of private silence, a person doesn’t talk – at least in the presence of others. I’ve included that slightly odd qualification because I often talk to myself when I’m alone. Just because no one else is there doesn’t mean my ears don’t work! Besides, all speech is somehow public if only in the republic of ourselves. Plato would appreciate that public privacy. Now, should you find that to be a bothersome contradiction, you’re ready for philosophy. Meanwhile, Wittgenstein’s social instincts at least were right: a one-man language is ridiculous. (See my Republic, Ch. 27.) To hear yourself formulate sentences isn’t the same as winging them in your mind. Open speech provides for checks and balances. Orators and actors instinctively know this, and they practice their lines out loud.
At this first level of speech, the most interesting concept is conscience. In my last post, I noted that conscience isn’t protected by the Bill of Rights. Nor is the right to think. This is reasonable. But, of course, the Founders were always reasonable. It was the Enlightenment! Think about it. You don’t need a right to think. You can think whatever you want. And Congress can’t stop you, not even with a Democratic majority. Nor can California or New York. A republican form of government is guaranteed the states by the Constitution. Thus you don’t need a thought visa when crossing state lines from Texas or Pennsylvania. The right to carry thoughts transfers with you. The reason is obvious. No one can tell what you’re thinking. Thinking is the supreme private speech act. No public functionary or ideological guardian can stop you from privately thinking whatever you want wherever you want howsoever you want so help you yourself.
As an aside, you might notice that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee the United States a republican form of government. But there’s an implied warranty. And the people are the guarantee.
For years I was mystified by the idea of “freedom of conscience” — and even by conscience itself. But since conscience was never a pressing issue for me, I didn’t concentrated my thoughts on the subject. But after several years of teaching my two political courses, I came to realize that “freedom of conscience” is the conflation of two freedoms, both already protected by the Bill of Rights. What people mean by “freedom of conscience” is the right to speak their minds in public about their religious beliefs. But both the freedom of speech and the freedom of religious exercise combined in “the freedom of conscience” already exist. No additional right is needed to exercise either of them — or their combination. Indeed, freedom of conscience is probably a Colonial holdover from olde English days when disfavored Protestant sects were restricted by the Church of England from unrestricted religious practice. As for conscience itself, I suspect that’s also a religious concept, and that of particular religions. I don’t recall 5th century Greeks ever referencing such a moral organ. And you’ll recall the theory of self I introduce in the Republic. It requires a somewhat different set of conceptualizations than conscience provides. Nonetheless, the same excellence of personal virtue — public and private — results.
- Private Opinion. As you know, I begin my courses with a drill covering the semester’s logistics as well as broader matters pertinent to success.
Recollect my remarks on opinion.
“Any questions? No? Good. Next topic. To be direct and with effect,” I begin with the considerate hint of a heads-up warning, “I’m not interested in your opinions.” I look out over the class. “In fact, I’m not interested in any of your opinions about anything.”
That gets their attention.
“‘I knew it! I knew he didn’t respect us as radically unique individuals!’” I say in a mimetic characterization of a student’s shocked dismay and angered contempt. To which I immediately add, “And I’m not interested in any of my opinions, either.”
That stops them.
“I’m not interested in opinions period,” I say with full-stopped propositional logic — or at least its rhetorical syntax.
Then I explain.
“I’m interested in information, insights, ideas, analyses, and discussions about the subjects introduced by opinions. And that’s what we’ll talk about for the remainder of the semester: everything — with especial and central reference to the course material. In other words, knowledge and world.”
I then observe that opinions aren’t worthless. Opinions might be the seed speech of desire. But once the seed has sprouted, the word is no longer seminal. What matters then is cultivation. What we do in my courses is cultivate the methods of knowledge and the meanings of fruition.
Finally, I advise my students not to use the word “opinion” again in my class or, for that matter, anywhere else. To help them understand that suggested direction, I witness myself and I explain why I don’t use the word — except for forensic purposes. Einstein took Planck at his word from 1900 and converted Planck’s discovery — or invention — of the merely theoretical “as-if” quantum into the actually real photon and the Nobel Prize of 1922. In the same way, I take the deconstructionist crowd at their own post-logos word. All utterances are opinions. Legal opinions. Medical opinions. Barroom opinions. Bedroom opinions. Op-ed opinions. Good! And now that we know that we know that, to keep saying so is a waste of time. (See Reality 101, Lecture 46.) We know it! So now let’s delete the vertigo of post-socialist verbiage and the purple politics of pleonasm. Fin! Of course, lots of students — like the deconstructionists — don’t get it. And they don’t get it because they don’t want to get it. Besides, the word “opinion” is so widely used, the habit of the catechism is hard to break. One student this semester used the o-word in class as late as the week before finals. “Don’t use the o-word!” I reminded her with a high chiding irony. “Everything is an opinion, so why waste your breath?” And, as I didn’t mention, her peers’ ears. (For an overall epistemological update, see Reality 101.)
This habitual use of the word “opinion” comes from two habit-forming habituated sources.
First, liberals use “opinion” to discourage the stalwart confidence of traditional conservatives.
“You still believe in the truth? Really? That must be so embarrassing for you! Well, of course, it is traditional. And you do have a right to your opinion— I mean The Truth! But don’t you think your truth is a bit old-fashioned — like metal kitchen cabinetry or a brass-bound Bible in the curtained parlor? Oh, but it is quaint. Children, come see! Epistemic Amish! And look, is that a typewriter? I could use that in my next sculpture! “Engines of Feminine Oppression #23: Phallic Mechanisms for Bourgeois Confinement.” My “#22” deconstructed a sewing machine. “Stitches in our Tear: The Unseemly Marital Seam.” Children, this summer we’ll go to Williamsburg for a conservative immersion. Won’t that be other-worldly!”
Let’s conceptually summarize the first source of the ubiquitous word “opinion.” Liberals use opinion to degrade the great pathos of the human sense of the obligations and labors of universal knowledge. And then they replace it with the conveniences and excitements of personal chaos.
The second habitual source of opinion is the liberal use of opinion to justify everything liberals say.
Consider the following socialist syllogism: “Everyone, being equal, equally has the freedom of speech. Everyone’s speech is equal. Therefore everything socialists say is true. And anyone who disagrees is a fascist!”
I understand that Berkeley is now entertaining black shirts as public instructors of free speech. Of course, such militarized actions aren’t free speech nor are they meant to be. They’re the intimidations of the free speech. “Free speech” is tactically employed to eliminate free speech, and then “free speech” is strategically replaced with the guaranteed regimented unanimity of mandatory tribal words. The two Berkeleys — town and gown — are presently reviving the role of the Weimar Republic in their local amateur production of the smash hit, Understanding! Of course “We’re proud of openness!” is the famous soliloquy. And Berkeley is indeed open. Berkeley’s open to the liquidation of the naïve. And perpetual contempt is the historical applause awaiting it upon the final stage direction: Curtains!
Let’s quickly note a psychological truism of fundamental normality. Whatever your ethical metric of world evaluation might be, judgement is not a capitulation. And if your metric — for example, the good — capitulates, then it’s a bad. And you lose the world.
Post-modern deconstruction liberalism — or superiority ashamed of its excellence for the sake of equality — is the castration celebration of post-success incapacitation.
- Private Speech. I’m sure you’ve had conversations with people who say, “Well, that’s my opinion and that’s what I think!” Such conversations don’t go very far, do they? Indeed, such defensive assertiveness is the psychological mechanism of mindless pride. Such apparent speech is actually silence with words. But even then, proud thoughtlessness isn’t worthless. Mindless volubility is useful in consumers whose uninformed tastes are reinforced by endlessly iterated ads.
In contrast with the artificial speech of verbal assertiveness and its tender bellicosity with private groups who vocally coalesce around particular interests on the basis of those interests’ articulation. This is private speech. Some people speak, others agree. And those who disagree do so with pertinent arguments and apt counter-proposals. The result is group agreement. Trade groups do this every day in preparation for efficiently informing law makers of their needs, hopes, and fantasies. Of particular interest here is the consensus — the display of unanimity — such groups portray in public. And when unanimity isn’t possible, not even for advantageous display, such groups break apart into separate organizations that go their own ways.
An even more illustrative form of private speech is religion. Virtually all faiths have sets of creeds or speech behaviors binding on the adherents of the religion. Of course, there are doctrinal disputes within every faith. But collectively there’s a unanimity of belief at any time and place.
By now, of course, fresh air lovers of the 1st Amendment will have heartily choked on my two examples of the freedom of speech: lobbyists and believers. “I can’t breathe!” But such stray lovers should listen for the big dog that doesn’t bark. Freedom of speech is a prohibition on blanket government restraints on public speech. But there’s no freedom of speech on private property — if you don’t own the property. And most of America is private property.
Like blue-state gated communities.
Meanwhile, for an altogether more charming and refreshing experience in private speech, both contemporary-domestic and timeless-classical, read The Cat Who Loved Beethoven.
- Public Silence. Two kinds of public silence can easily be observed in the 20th century’s most expensive world belief dispute.
The first kind of public silence derives from national coercion and state oppression. Outside of a received and enforced creed, public speech is not welcome, and it will be punished. The result is a glum and furtive public silence overlaid with the joyous choreography of a corporate catechism. Mao’s China was especially good at that.
The second kind of public silence results from people’s indifference to public speech or their distractions in private affairs. America has long been especially good at those. Foreigners like to say that Americans are politically naïve. True. But politics is secondary in a republic where civil and especially business affairs are and should be paramount and predominant in power and prestige. The political proficiency of foreigners then looks like a pastime of articulate distractions, not power-central savvy. Much of Plato’s politics is a study in such civic impotence and its mandatory speeches. (See Reality 101.)
Notice, however, that neither of these two forms of public silence was necessarily unique to one side or the other of the Cold War. In the United States, the public silence of a state catechism was ordained in the 1950s by the Republicans. And a similarly pious silence — in the name of a socialist catechism — has been christened by Democrats more recently. The repugnant righteousness of both speech-silencing idea regimes — “For country and freedom!” or “For justice and equality!” — is obvious.
- Public Opinion. We saw above how inarticulate aggressiveness is associated with private opinion. But it’s found just as much at the public level as well. For example, newly introduced citizens will buoyantly share their opinions on social or economic topics. But when they discover they disagree on the basis of different political affiliations, they can only piously repeat “their” opinions — and add the sullen Constitutional threat that “it’s my opinion and I have a right to it!” Most of the national verbiage in the last election took the form of such public opinion: of catechismic insistence rather than analytic discussion. And, of course, there were ample cartoon characterizations of the presidential contestants provided for the conceptually illiterate.
For those who are word and world articulate, opinionated private “conversations” are as unprofitable as they are tedious. And doctrinaire public “conversations” are as obnoxious as they are inane.
- Public Speech. When people in public who don’t agree then speak: that is public speech. Such speech doesn’t agree because humans are disagreeable. Humans have different interests. And different interests are typically incompatible. Furthermore, when humans do agree in big ways, they disagree over small things. And when they fail to find any conflicting small things, they disagree over nothing — to be different and significant, and to be vocal and heard. Humans are the factional animal. Matters of economic oppression don’t make humans factious, just their psychological wiring. Observe children at play. Factions like religion work.
When Marx read Federalist #10 — I like to suspect that Dr. Marx read everything — had he understood even just the one paragraph in which Madison wrote about humans forming factions as a part of human nature, Marxism would never have happened. You’ve seen in detail — in both my Republic and my course — the failure of Marx to understand this because of his religious misunderstanding of human nature. Indeed, Marx believed humans have no nature of their own whatsoever. For Marx, humans are the mirror of their economies. Oaks are oaks, turtles are turtles, and humans are economics. This is a strange “natural” science for an atheistic materialist who called his socialism “scientific.” But, of course, Marx’s soul mentor and spirit master was Hegel. And Hegel called his own logic “scientific” while denouncing Newton as a “false scientist.” Bitte?
And yet this natural lack of public agreement doesn’t entail a perpetual absence of cooperation and the endless discord of Hobbes’ habitat of hate. On the contrary, public disagreement means domestic tranquility. No, that’s not a misprint. Compare the maxim “private vice, public virtue” from The Fable of the Bees. But the felicity of productive peace comes from the art of open disagreement. And the artistry of the channeling of the energy of disagreement into fruitful accord requires the direction of leadership.
This is public speech.
Politicians are the most obvious source of public speech, especially those who merit the great name statesman. But public speech is the province of other referees of meaning as well. These include professors of thought, artists of words, and leaders of belief.
The current noise called Washington doesn’t have much public speech imbedded in its bluster right now. Instead, we citizens get shovel loads of silence and wheel barrows of opinion. But at least it’s fertilizer for thought.
You’re disinclined to speak in public, you say, because you’re afraid of being wrong. You shouldn’t be afraid of being wrong in public even once. You should be afraid of always being right!
Given what I’ve already said, this isn’t a paradox. Obviously! Leadership through public speech doesn’t consist in being right. It consists in optimizing the conflicts of human interests, including your own. Public speech is the art of faction management. And the great artists of faction management are called statesmen.
To always be right is never to be unsettled. Such pleasant placidity may be briefly sweet. But soon it becomes an unchallenged stagnation, and such conscious redundancy then becomes a life of habituated unconsciousness. Mill recognized that condition in his defense of the freedom of speech. Indeed, many humans have warm plush souls — like chipmunks — because long ago they became not happy but complacent. Happiness is an energetic radiance, not a lobotomized smile.
I’m not suggesting that you should be intentionally wrong! Statesmanship isn’t martyrdom! Though even Bismarck met his Golgotha in Wilhelm. But by avoiding the life of certain rightness, you’ll always be available for surprise, and therefore at the very least you’ll be forcibly alive. And then there’s the maker’s joy of being surprised by yourself every day with the intentionalities of love.
To be a public speaker is to learn the art of managing surprises. The extreme version of this art occurs with politicians. Professors and scientists are open to the admission of fallibility, and some are glad recipients of new information. Politicians seems to be more infallible than that. Perhaps the old tribal wiring of allegiance for survival requires public perfection for successful fealty. I’ll leave that matter to all present — and future — politicians to conceptually arm wrestle their staffs with.
And now observe that my half dozen steps aren’t some progressive program of ascendant cosmic accord. “Package includes six significant nights and seven unforgettable days. And before you depart to universal happiness, enjoy some duty-free shopping or a quick round of golf!”
There’s no up or down or higher or lower in the universe. Newton already knew that. (See Reality 101 for directions on how to orient your cosmic compass.) As selves, we are and must always be self-ish. The most cosmic man is centered with himself, and the gravest statesman likes childish play. And yet the sage isn’t selfish. And the statesman doesn’t toddle.
In other words, someone who’s a public speaker doesn’t outgrow the other five forms of speech. All six have their places, their pleasures, and purposes. At the same time, in politics and public theory, the sixth is clearly the most important. But even then, not only isn’t it celestially higher. It’s not even necessarily more inclusive despite what statists such as Hegel wanted and claimed. In a republic, the prodigious private speech of the great civil society should be the single largest form and forum of human communication.
And now, having talked about the current noise known as Washington, what’s your opinion — I mean analysis! — of Trump, his cabinet, and the desperately unhappy and therefore frightfully vengeful Democratic opposition? You’ve opined a distressed contempt for the post-inauguration situation with a dismay equal to that of as the pre-election show.
I’ll only personally observe that Trump reminds me just now of Horace Greeley. When Greeley ran for president against Grant in ’72, the vituperation and attacks on him — Greeley! not Grant — were so strident and biting, Greeley exclaimed, “I don’t know if I’m running for the presidency or the penitentiary!”
Welcome to public speech!
And now talk (re)public(ican) to me.