Saintly Thoughts

Against Rawls

The saint herein attempts a breezy (and completely intuited rather than reasoned) repudiation of Rawls' conceptualization of the neutral public space and suggests a (possible) alternative:

I have nothing but the deepest respect for John Rawls' vision of a humanistic and liberal ethic whereby society may choose how best to attain and equally distribute various goods acting in conjunction with Kant's principle of the categorical imperative (that is a very pretentious and confusing sentence, but I don't wish to go through a complete run-down of Rawls' philosophy here).  But at least in one vital respect central to Rawls' thought I wish to take issue, and I see this point as important because it directly touches on one of the major issues facing our society in this present political moment.

I wish to take issue with Rawls' understanding of the imperative that all discourse in the public space must be couched in neutral language.  An example of this would be someone who, because of their religious commitments, does not support abortion.  Example: "I do not think abortion on demand is good policy because it violates God's fundamental law to not take an innocent life."  The neutral language requirement necessitates that, even though the person's fundamental objections spring from religion, because these religious commitments are not shared by all in that society, their objections must be couched in the language of some discipline that all can agree upon such as scientific and/or sociological principles.  Example: "I do not think abortion on demand is a good policy because (some large percentage of women) experience deep depression and remorse afterwards."  

Now in theory, I agree with Rawls; if all that occurs in the public space is people hurling competing and dissimilar value judgments at one another, then conversation becomes impossible and is useless (at least as conversation; I take it as a given that there are other necessary goods served when people hurl competing and dissimilar invective against one another, i.e., it serves as a stand-in for violent encounters which might otherwise occur).  However, my intuition is that the process by which we come to understand our value judgments itself becomes perverted when we are constantly forced to translate it into an idiom unnatural to the base value-laden jargon.  That is, that whether or not said "value-neutral" language is in fact neutral, those who are forced to translate their own thoughts into the value-neutral language undergo a necessary change in their relationship both to the value-neutral language itself and to their own value-laden language; that is, they come to think of the two as being synonymous with one another, and that language which was meant to be value-neutral becomes, for those who would naturally use value-laden language, one and the same thing.  This is obviously not the case for those who use the value-neutral language neutrally (assuming even that such usage is possible).

The result is that we end up in the worst of all possible worlds.  We end up in a world of extreme political euphemism where all sides in the debate use the same words but apply to those words their own intrinsic value judgments.  Thus, instead of a situation where people talk past one another because they have different values and use different words to express those values (a world in which the competing sides are at least able to differentiate at the outset the differences between the various sides of the useless debate) all sides use exactly the same words but apply completely different definitions and values to these words!  The result is that democracy comes to mean both representative government and theocracy, freedom comes to mean both speech rights and censorship, etc.  The words come to lose all meaning, and because it is obvious to the various sides that they are NOT talking about the same thing, they attempt to develop esoteric means of ferreting out and interpreting by means of secondary signifiers (race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) what each individual group is actually talking about.  The problem, however, is that in such a world of euphemism, in which each group develops for itself its own independent cultural definitions of what these words mean, an outsider will be able to understand their usage only insofar as said outsider has come into a deep engagement with this other group--an engagement which, to say the least, most outsiders (especially those who define themselves in relation to their opposition to said group) will not wish to or be unable to undertake. 

And thus we sink into our present political Babel, where no one can talk with anyone else because we have not the language to speak of our legitimately held value differences.  We are forced to speak using the same words to signify different ideas, and our ideas have become as hazy and indistinct as our words that signify them.  

However, I am forced to agree, to an extent, with Rawls' principle--for their is a need for some means by which those with competing values may speak and think about the differences inherent in these values with one another.  My disagreement is not with Rawls' impulse, but with the execution.  My intuition is that use of value-neutral language in the public sphere does not plumb deeply enough the depths of our language.  That those things that are really shared and where real communication may take place are lie in those terrors and uncertainties that arise out of the deep depths of the human soul.  That the only means by which one may truly find a language which transcends particularity is to delve into those very depths of particularity which ultimately mold and define human persons, and drag from out of those depths the writhing nothingness which underlies all particularity.  What we need, according to my humble intuition, is a language of nihilism that uncovers the nothingness lying underneath.  At some point in the future, I shall expand upon this idea.  For now, I leave you perplexed, for I have not the words to easily describe my intuition.