What can be said and what can be shown?

In politics, what is being said and what is being shown?

When I read some discussions in the comments sections of blogs, an old, sexist joke – that highlights something other than misogyny – often comes to mind.

You know the debates. One person says something, but implies another. The response is to the implication. The first commenter claims never to have said that – technically true.

The joke goes like this:

“A man cooks a roast meal for friends. They ask him where he got the meat. He replies, ‘From the butcher down the road’.

A woman cooks a roast meal for friends. They ask her where she got the meat. She replies, ‘Why? What’s wrong with it?'”

On a side issue (for this post), I think it’s no coincidence that, in this joke, it is the woman who is shown to respond to something other than what is usually called the ‘literal meaning’ of her guests’ inquiry.

Recent research on emotional and social intelligence suggests that there are distinct neurological substrates (and here) for these forms of intelligence, on the one hand, and the more ‘traditional’ form of cognitive intelligence (what IQ tests are thought to measure), on the other.

It has also long been realised that women tend to do better on measures of social intelligence than do men. Interestingly, however, while women do better on the interpersonal aspects of a combined ‘Emotional-Social Intelligence’ scale (see page 7 of this link) they score significantly lower than men on emotional management. From the link:

More specifically, the Bar-On model reveals that women are more aware of emotions, demonstrate more empathy, relate better interpersonally and are more socially responsible than men. On the other hand, men appear to have better self-regard, are more self-reliant, cope better with stress, are more flexible, solve problems better, and are more optimistic than women. Similar gender patterns have been observed in almost every other population sample that has been examined with the EQ-i. Men’s deficiencies in interpersonal skills, when compared with women, could explain why psychopathy is diagnosed much more frequently in men than in women; and significantly lower stress tolerance amongst women may explain why women suffer more from anxiety-related disturbances than men (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

(p. 7)

That might help explain the gender bias in the joke – though not justify the sexism which is simply an attempt to undermine and trivialise skills that, on average, are more often expressed by women.

The ‘joke’, of course, is that the woman is supposedly responding in a neurotic and paranoid manner while the man is showing his ‘solidity’ by simply responding to the question at ‘face value’.

It could, however, be just as funny if we assumed the man was dumb enough not to detect the ‘joke’ his guests were having at his expense (that the meat was appalling but they were humouring him on).

In fact, both men and women are well aware of both of these ways to garner meaning from what people say and do and we all make use of both, in different circumstances.

But, as I said, irrespective of the gendered nature of the joke, there’s something more fundamental about this difference. And it’s something that is prevalent in politics and in our modern world.

It’s the basis of the ability to be publicly duplicitous and, for example, to hide behind ‘plausible deniability’. It provides, in short, two ways of determining meaning – we can therefore select whichever version happens to suit our purposes in the present circumstances.

The political usefulness of this dual means of determining meaning is found in that memorable and much-repeated quote from the TV Series ‘House of Cards‘. When Francis Urquhart wishes to agree while being able, in future, to deny that he agrees with a speculation, he replies: “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”

It is also implicit in the notion of political ‘dog whistling‘ – the ability to appeal to people with certain beliefs and attitudes without having to admit – to a more general audience – to subscribing to those attitudes.

These two ways of determining meaning are, in short, the explanation of the experience of a supposed split in the modern world between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’. It is that split that allows deception and, its counter, distrust, to arise. You can never be sure which kind of meaning will be resorted to by those you encounter.

This split can be found at all levels. It arises within theories of the individual (e.g., in the Freudian notion of the ‘real’ unconcsious processes behind the mere appearances of consciousness – a dream, for example, says one thing (its so-called ‘manifest content’) but actually means another (its ‘latent content’) – and, tellingly, only the analyst can tell you the ‘correct’ meaning of the latent content.).

At the other extreme, it exists within the institutions of society (e.g., the formal appearance of the parliamentary processes versus the reality of the deals, informal ‘shadow’ networks between MPs, staffers, lobbyists, etc.).

This split is what gives our world – and many of the people in it – that odd quality of being the most real and the most unreal experience, all at the same time. Isaiah Berlin said that everything is what it is, and nothing else. But our experience is more that everything gives the appearance of being something it is not. It’s the gateway to The Matrix.

Back to politics.

Plausible deniability is gold in politics – for two reasons. As already mentioned, it allows meanings to be expressed without others being able to hold you to account for them.

But, even better, it allows those who try to argue on the basis of what they believe is being ‘shown’ to be portrayed as, variously, ‘irrational’ (‘That wasn’t what I said‘), emotional (‘You’re obviously overwrought if you think I meant that.’), paranoid (‘You’re obviously particularly sensitive about this.’) or suffering from some low-level cognitive deficiency (‘I really can’t see how you leapt to that conclusion about my motives.’).

In short, in the political world, those who try to highlight the strategic, motivational aspects of what someone says (i.e., that which is only ‘shown’ by what is said but not explicitly ‘said’ – the insult to the cooking of the meat in our joke), can be marginalised, at least in terms of the limits of what is ‘officially’ acceptable.

This aspect of the relationships between language and meaning has been highlighted in a relatively recent approach to (cognitive) psychology. In their 1993 book ‘Discursive Psychology‘, Derek Edwards and Jonathon Potter describe their ‘Discursive Action Model’. Here’s the model, summarised in a table, from a contemporaneous publication:

The interesting thing about this model is that discourse is characterised in highly political terms. Of course, it’s the ‘politics’ of our everyday interactions with each other – but political it definitely is.

Look at the last two categories in the table: ‘Fact and Interest’ and ‘Accountability’.

‘Fact and Interest’ involves the essential dilemma for any politician (professional or ‘lay’). How do you get people to take your account as a factual rendition of the world while, at the same time, you have a clear interest in arranging the account in a particular way?

Accountability is what we so often hear about in politics, but it’s also what politicians are supposedly trying to impose upon each other in our adversarial system.

Take a well known example. Malcolm Fraser (ex-Prime Minister of Australia) famously said that “Life is not meant to be easy.

The comment is presented as a report (an account) of just the way the world is. But, of course, Fraser had an interest in people accepting that particular account of the world. In accepting that metaphysical vision (Thomas Sowell’s ‘constrained vision’ – partly the subject of this post of mine – and this one; and this one; and this one) they might also be persuaded to accept that the Liberal Party understood their hardships and their efforts.

And, inevitably, he was forever ‘held to account’ for making that statement. It reappeared in his interview for the Australian Biography project in 1994 as an object of questioning.

The quotation actually arises in the context of ‘The Fifth Alfred Deakin Lecture – 20 July, 1971’ and established Fraser’s political philosophy prior to becoming Prime Minister. The paragraph in which it appeared goes like this:

Arnold Toynbee once wrote twelve volumes to demonstrate and analyse the cause of the rise and fall of nations. His thesis can be condensed to a sentence, and is simply stated: That through history nations are confronted by a series of challenges and whether they survive or whether they fall to the wayside, depends on the manner |and character of their response. Simple, and perhaps one of the few things that is self evident. It involves a conclusion about the |past that life has not been easy for people or for nations, and an assumption for the future that that condition will not alter. There is within me some part of the metaphysic, and thus I would add that life is not meant to be easy.

Well, when it comes to navigating the waters between what is actually said and what might be being shown I guess the ‘meanings’ of life probably aren’t ‘meant’ to be easy to detect – especially in politics.

This blog is devoted, in part, to trying to make those meanings clearer.

But there’s an epilogue (and a long one) …

The title of this post is taken from the famous distinction that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made in his early work (the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). He argued – so persuasively that Bertrand Russell couldn’t find an error in his logic, despite wishing he could – that the limits of sense were the propositions of natural science and so all talk of the logical structure of language (and thought) must, therefore, be nonsense since talk of logic could not, by definition, picture of logic since it required the assumption of logic to do the picturing.

Russell and many other philosophers made their livings out of producing theories about logic, meaning, etc. so this was unfortunate news – derived as it apparently was from the very view of language and sense assumed in the ‘logical’ philosophy they pursued.

If the propositions of natural science were all that could be said (with sense), this leaves, as the Stanford Encyclopedia entry linked to above points out, “a daunting number of statements which are made and used in language.”

The list of – technical – nonsense includes aesthetics, ethics and, as just mentioned, the ‘propositions of logic’. Aesthetics can only be shown, not said. Ethics can only be shown, not said. Logic can only be shown, not said. It’s a bit disappointing and, worse, seemingly mystical and ‘transcendent’. And that is the word Wittgenstein gave to that which can only be shown, since it was, as a matter of technical deduction, beyond the world of what could be said.

In the joke I began with, one problem for the woman is that, in effect, what was shown to her in the question ‘Where did you get your meat?’ (i.e., that her guests did not like the meat) was something that could never be proven to exist. Yet, we all know that what is in this way shown does exist (in many cases). It is not always paranoia (though, sometimes, we might conclude it is).

Fortunately, Wittgenstein returned to philosophy – after believing that, in the Tractatus, he had pretty much solved the problems of philosophy, principally by showing that those problems and questions, technically, made no sense – they were nonsensical (e.g., ‘What is meaning?’; ‘What is a proposition?’; ‘What is truth?’, etc.).

On his return there is no longer any talk of what can be shown and what can be said. Instead, he eschews the idea that language (and thought) fundamentally ‘pictures’ the world, with each element of a proposition having its correlate in ‘reality’. Language becomes – in many ways – something much simpler.

It is a tool that is used towards particular (often deeply conventional) ends. In that sense, it’s put on a par with many other things, from literal tools (hammers, screwdrivers, vacuum cleaners, etc.) to the games we play; from bridge to the judicial and political systems and other social systems we live by.

Language ceases to be something that needs to be understood as a special, almost mystical device that elevates humans to ‘super beings’ over those species that haven’t happened upon such a magical medium. Like everything else, language gains its life (its ‘élan vital’) from the flow of life – and not from something internal to it.

Language is used. Meaning – in most cases – can therefore be understood through seeing how we use words as part of our ongoing activity and action.

This makes language something more human and natural(istic) than it is often understood to be. In our joke we all understand that, potentially, the guests could be playing the ‘language game’ of inviting the inference, subtly, that something is wrong with the meal.

And, it’s certainly true that great literature and drama couldn’t survive without our acknowledgment of these possibilities in the motivation of the characters it creates and the resulting emotional tensions and conflict between them. What characters know, or think they know, about each other often drives the dramatic momentum and the plot.

Of course, there is also, quite possibly, a dinner guest’s ‘game’ of simply wanting to know where the meat came from out of curiosity (they might have lost the services of their butcher after an earthquake, for example!) or – contra the suspicion of the woman in the joke – because they quite liked the meal.

The joke is understood because we understand, through the school of hard knocks in our conversations, that many uses can be made of the same sentence. The meaning of the sentence is not, finally, given by the words in it.

So how do we determine which use of the sentence is the proper ‘meaning’ of the sentence (surely someone might ‘misuse’ another’s sentence)?

At the end of the day – or the meal – the truth of what that question really means is found in what happens next, outside the frame of the joke. It is not determined – or set – at the time the question is uttered, or even in the initial reactions of the person who answers it. And, more often than not, ‘we’ (the participants) get to resolve on some meaning – and then let the incident float off into the past.

Life, perhaps unfortunately, is the same – and so is the cycling of politics. We only find out what was meant, what the truth was, when the episode draws to a close. And that ‘finding out’ comes down to

If we can never know the meaning of anything (for ‘sure’), is all then lost? How do we know what anything really ‘means’?

The way out of this particular ‘fly bottle’ is to see, as just mentioned, that we participate in this ‘meaning making’. The meanings of things are constructed by us as we go along (whether or not we ‘intend’ to construct any particular meaning).

That means that our picture of ‘meaning’ is a bad one. We see it like something that is ‘in a sentence’, ‘in a gesture’, ‘in an event’. But the way we use that word – ‘meaning’ – shows that, in many situations, it isn’t.

Think of the word ‘meaning’ as of no different character from any other word – such as ‘cat’. We aren’t too worried when someone points out that ‘cat’ is used sometimes to include tigers and lions, sometimes just to include domestic pets and at other times to describe someone metaphorically – so ‘cat’ has no final, absolute use; no final meaning. Over time, it may get used more one way than another or, eventually, even come to mean something entirely different.

We’re not worried, of course, because we’re pretty relaxed about the fact that the word ‘cat’ gets us by in most situations and, if needed, we can always clarify its use to someone if they start to use it incorrectly (like a child calling a small dog a cat).

Think the same way about ‘meaning’. Sometimes, for particular purposes, we want to see ‘meaning’ as if it was in someone’s words. Sometimes we want to see ‘meaning’ as something that comes out of someone’s action (or behaviour).

For example, sometimes we like to think that someone saying ‘I love you’ means that they love us. Sometimes we like to think that what someone does determines whether or not they love us.

It’s best, of course, when what is said aligns perfectly with what is shown – that signals the end of politics, in the worst – deceptive – sense of that word.

4 Responses to What can be said and what can be shown?

  1. Ian Way says:

    A like conundrum – Does mean mean or mean?

  2. Ian Way says:

    Should be Does mean mean mean or mean?

  3. Abbie Napier says:

    Hi Puddlegum

    Would be great if you can flick me an email, I have a proposition for you.

    Abbie Napier
    The Press and the Christchurch Mail.

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