Deetz's New Ethic and Political Conversations
University of Colorado at Boulder
Think back on any conversation you were involved in that sparked disagreement. Did that conversation achieve anything or did it go absolutely nowhere? Did you feel as though your opinions were heard or were they completely overlooked? Did you feel as though you had a better understanding of your own opinions – or more importantly, did you feel as though you had a better understanding of the other participant’s perspective? It seems as though conversations on a daily basis rarely produce a genuine understanding of each of the participant’s opinions. In light of this year’s presidential campaigns, I will be focusing primarily on everyday, run-of-the-mill political conversations between peers. From my observations and experience, people tend to keep to their own opinions without ever giving the other person a chance to voice their's in an open and genuine environment. Political conversations are often close minded and chalk full of misinterpretation and biased information. How can such conversations be freed from the close-mindedness and the narrowness that prevents them from becoming a genuine dialogue? Stan Deetz introduces a new ethic that has the potential to result in genuine conversation and a social formation of understanding.
In "Reclaiming the Subject Matter as a Guide to Mutual Understanding", Deetz begins his article with a critique of prior studies concerning interpersonal interaction. He notes that ethical concerns within an interpersonal setting are rarely addressed. Prior research is "filled with value statements and value judgments, but the nature and foundation of such value claims are rarely raised as social ethical concerns" (1990, p. 226). This critique highlights the value placed on the individual and the power structure based on influence that runs our conversations. He discusses that "nearly all current ethics for communication are based in western enlightenment tradition" (1990, p. 227). This is an issue because it assumes the linear-transmission model of communication; individuals express their ideas and values, therefore permitting rational decisions. It does not reference socially produced individuals and information. In light of breaking away from the western enlightenment tradition, Deetz draws upon several other traditions to outline genuine conversation. In developing a new ethic, Deetz draws from several communication theory traditions including the cybernetic, phenomenological and critical traditions. Mainly however, he draws from Gadamer within the phenomenological tradition. He acknowledges Gadamer’s awareness of "communication [as] the attempt to reach mutual understanding" (1990, p. 231) through genuine conversation. Genuine conversation is "shown to be a special interaction among two persons and the subject matter before them" that "requires a certain commonality of prior understanding, [to] create and recreate a common language and experience" (Deetz, 1990, p. 231). Here, Deetz emphasizes the importance of mutual understanding as a vital element of the new ethic.
The new ethic encompasses a value placed on "a productive rather than reproductive conception of communication [that] shows the fundamental process by which mutual understanding arises in regard to the subject matter" (Deetz, 1990, p. 231). Here, Deetz emphasizes the importance of productivity while keeping the conversation open. Drawing upon Gadamer, Deetz states that in order to achieve genuine conversation "every communicative act should have as its ethical condition the attempt to keep the conversation—the open development of experience—going" (1990, p. 232). That is to say, the conversational material needs to focus on the matter at hand and maintain an environment for a continuing shared experience. However, conversational blockage precludes genuine conversation, thus inhibiting its effective and ethical qualities. First, genuine conversation can be blocked if identities are set through either labeling and stereotyping or maintaining images. Buber’s recognition of "thouness" "suggests that any possible label of conception of both self and other is capable of being questioned" (Deetz, 1990, p. 234), meaning that it is not unethical because it helps to form the self and other through questioning, which frees up any attempt to conceptualize the person as a being rather than as an object. However, even if one can recognize the "thouness" of the other person, a "common occurrence of the freezing of self and other in interactional systems [is] the ‘ist’ argument" (Deetz, 1990, p. 234). Playing the "ist" card is considered unethical because it labels the other and is "based principally on its capacity to stop the possibility of further expression" (p. 234). In other words, it inhibits one from being able to openly explore and discuss their beliefs and values. Deetz also discusses six "micro" discursive functions that occur under table, often unnoticed that act in ways to block discourse.
The first example of an unethical discursive function Deetz provides is disqualification. Disqualification is the "discursive process by which individuals are excluded" (Deetz, 1990, p. 236) or some do not have an equal say. The second example is naturalization which naturalizes the situation by making it appear as though an issue does not exist. Deetz also discusses neutralization in which biased information is treated as objective. Topical avoidance highlights when certain topics are just not discussed. Another example of blocked discourse is subjectification of experience. This occurs when it has been concluded that the issue is a mere matter of opinion and therefore does not need to addressed. Lastly, meaning denial can occur in which a meaning is presented but is constantly denied. In order to overcome these blockages, Deetz suggests three ways to reopen the conversation to allow genuine conversation to flow.
First, metacommunication would allow each participant of the conversation to take a step back and remark on the blockages themselves. By dissecting the problem, the conversation has the potential to be freed from blocked discourse and remain open. Another solution is through rhetoric. Rhetoric functions to "make possible discussion where there appears to be no need for discussion" (Deetz, 1990, p. 239). In other words, rhetoric functions to make the most of both sides of the issue. As the final solution, strategy functions as a way to defeat blockage through the use of "political action, symbolic acts, and system disruption" (Deetz, 1990, p. 240). These strategies should be utilized when metacommunication and rhetoric are not enough to break the unethical characteristics that often limit genuine conversation from occurring. From examining the fundamental principles that guide the new ethic of communication, it is now possible to apply this theory to those unproductive, often frustrating political arguments that occur among our peers.
Over the last view months, I have heard and been a part of more unproductive, frustrating and often maddening political conversations with friends, fellow peers and the occasional mere acquaintance than I would have liked to have been a part of. The idea of a perfect political debate in which each person rightly states their position and graciously listens and responds to the other in a casual setting is highly romanticized. This rarely happens. Although argument is essential in learning new perspectives and ideas, political conversations often turn nasty and begin and end with no purpose. In an article written by Vincent Price, Joseph N. Cappella and Lilach Nir, they discuss whether disagreement within political conversations contribute to opinion quality and the expansion of the other person’s perspective or not. Although the article concludes that "exposure to disagreement does indeed contribute to people’s ability to generate reasons, and in particular reasons why others might disagree with their own views" (Price et al, 2002, p. 95), it does address the case in which disagreement sparks more disagreement rather than coming to a general consensus about the matter. In order to understand why political conversations often become closed-off and unproductive and find ways to improve the productivity of them, it is essential to look at if from the new ethic perspective of communication.
Earlier, I discussed briefly the six ways discourse can function to block genuine conversation. Here, I would like to apply them to a political conversation that represents and encompasses many of the ways in which conversation becomes blocked.
Allison and her friend Nikki are discussing this year’s president-elect, Barack Obama. It doesn’t go too well. (based on a true conversation)
Allison: Finally, I can have faith in America again! I am so excited Obama is our new president!
Nikki: Well, we’ll see where our country is in four years. Screw liberalism - it's like a mental disorder.
Allison: You honestly think we need another George Bush in office? Get real.
Nikki: No, but when you want to take my hard earned money and share it with people who don’t work, milk the system for welfare, illegal undeserving immigrants, minorities (just for being minorities), then absolutely no way will I "share the wealth" and that’s just that.
Allison: Wow, I wasn’t asking for you to share your selfish opinions.
Nikki: I’m done here, there isn’t anything more to discuss.
Right off the bat, the potential for this conversation to evolve into a genuine dialogue is out the window. Although Allison begins the conversation well, Nikki immediately becomes defensive with her response. By referring to liberalism, Nikki demonstrates how the "ist" argument automatically puts a label on Allison, giving her little room to participate in "free and open formative discourse" (Deetz, 1990, p. 234) whether Allison holds liberalism as her "real self or conceptualized by [Nikki]" (p. 234) or not. The conversation contains numerous of Deetz’s blockage examples. First, when Nikki finishes her argument about taxes, she ends with "that’s just that," indicating that this conversation has been neutralized. Allison and Nikki clearly hold different views about the topic so instead of talking about them, Nikki immediately shuts off all potential for rebuttal by treating her opinion as though it is the only opinion. This could also be a form of disqualification by implying that no other opinion matters except Nikki’s.
Deetz’s new ethic of communication could serve as a way to improve the quality of the conversation between Nikki and Allison. By shedding light on the elements of the conversation that fit into one of the examples that block discourse, Allison and Nikki could decipher why they both became upset at the end of the conversation. Nikki needed to not put Allison in a category and Allison didn’t need to directly accuse Nikki of being selfish. By using genuine dialogue as a template, the conversation at hand has the potential to encompass "the ideal democratic community that resolves its action through free and equal exchange, invites and encourages arguments for all sides, and grants to argument, rather than to coercion" (Price et al, 2002, p. 96). This quote emphasizes the difference between disagreement and oppressive arguments. Deetz would argue a similar difference. "Every communicative act should have as its ethical condition the attempt to keep the conversation—the open development of experience—going" (Deetz, 1990, p. 232), meaning that we should be responsive to the subject matter rather than solely generate repressive responses. Instead of completely putting one another’s opinions down, Nikki and Allison could work to "create and recreate a common language and experience" (Deetz, 1990, p. 231) to better understand each other’s perspectives. As Price et al would argue, this understanding of one another could also enrich their arguments because they can draw upon the other’s opinions.
Despite Deetz’s new ethic of communication and Price’s insight on argument, there are still limitations of the presented solution. First, although Deetz suggests using metacommunication as a way to talk about the issue, this rarely occurs. Political conversations have the potential to heat up so much that it would be nearly impossible to discuss how Allison and Nikki should discuss their opinions. Also, Deetz presents another solution involving rhetoric. Although rhetoric as a solution serves to "maximize the possibility of participation in the interaction" (Deetz, 1990, p. 240), if Nikki or Allison decides to end the conversation either through disqualification or neutralization or any other example of blockage, this immediately eliminates the possibility of opening up the debate. However, strategy in this scenario could be a possible solution to this communication issue. Since the power of political opinion has the potential to overthrow metacommunication and rhetoric, the use of strategy "may be necessary to develop systems of interaction in which genuine conversation is possible" (Deetz, 1990, p. 240). This could be achieved through the use of other sources that back up one side of the argument while still addressing the other side in a clear and coherent manner. Price et al discuss another concept known as civility that could strengthen Deetz’s theory. Civility refers to the "awareness of what other people think, coupled with some understanding of why others think the way they do. Whereas speaking develops strength and individuality in opinion, it is hearing others speak that develops civility" (2002, p. 97). Although linked to the new ethic, the concept of civility sheds light on coming in close contact with the other’s person as a person who holds values, beliefs and opinions. This could then be connected to Buber’s theory of dialogue. By combining these two theories, Deetz’s new ethic would be more complete and address other communication problems such as argument based around strong opinion.
The new ethic of communication is one valid solution to the problem presented about political conversations between peers. Although it contains limitations, with extensions provided by other theorists such as Buber and Price, the new ethic has the potential to serve as a means to open up conversation to be more open and genuine. This world lacks all too often genuine and authentic conversations in which those involved truly listen to another. Disagreement is vital to understand one’s own opinions, beliefs and values, but it should not serve as a way to close off genuine relations with one another. Rather, it should work to bring out both perspectives in order to enrich each argument.
Deetz, S. (1990). Reclaiming the subject matter as a guide to mutual understanding: Effectiveness and ethics in interpersonal interaction. Communication Quarterly, 38(3), 226-243.
Price, V., et al. (2002). Does disagreement contribute to more deliberative opinion? Political Communication, 19, 95-112.