Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric

It’s not just that conservatives define terms differently. Sometimes their relationship to words defies definition entirely.

If you’re like most liberals, you probably from time to time take a walk on the other side of the line. Maybe you channel-scan through Fox News or even Newsmax. Or click on some of the links your Trump-adoring relatives send you. Or listen to a speech by some politician you can’t stand. Maybe you go so far as to read entire books written by people like Tucker Carlson or Newt Gingrich, or by academic types who are probably liberals themselves, but have spent years studying Trump supporters in rural Louisiana or in Evangelical churches.

And you still don’t get it.

It’s worse than just that you can’t follow the arguments, such as they are. You can’t even understand the words. Why is it “cancel culture” when Josh Hawley loses his book contract after cheerleading an insurrection, but not when Colin Kaepernick gets drummed out of the NFL for protesting racism? What does it mean when conservatives say “America is a Republic, not a Democracy“, as if that explained something obvious? Why are college professors and Hollywood actors “the elite”, but billionaires like the Kochs and the Mercers aren’t? Why is it “socialism” to subsidize windmills, but not coal mines? And who exactly are these “real Americans” that Donald Trump speaks for, when the American electorate rejected him by over seven million votes?


The cancel-culture example. The usual liberal response when we run into one of these one-sided pejorative terms, terms that apply to us but never to them, is to charge hypocrisy. From the way the term applies to us, we intuit a definition, then ask why conservatives don’t apply that definition consistently. [1]

Wil Wilkinson, formerly a vice president at the liberal Niskanen Center, is sometimes pointed out as an ironic victim of “cancel culture”, because he recently lost his job after making an unfortunate joke on Twitter. [2] The irony comes from the fact that Wilkinson has been a critic of the whole cancel-culture conversation. To some conservatives, Wilkinson getting “canceled” is like the moment in a horror movie when the monster attacks the guy who’s been claiming there’s no monster.

Interestingly, though, Wilkinson himself still doesn’t believe cancel-culture is a thing. He defends his skepticism by stating his faith in something else: the power of definitions.

I also tend to believe that terms that successfully pick out real things in the real world — terms that aren’t merely vehicles for yay! / boo! sentiments — can usually be given a definition that allows us to get at least a rough handle on what’s included and excluded from the category. But I’ve yet to encounter a definition of “cancel culture” that overcomes my suspicion of sloganized epithets.

Wilkinson quotes L.D. Burnett: “There is no such thing as ‘cancel culture’. There is only culture.” In other words, societies have norms, and violating those norms leads to consequences. If you behave in ways your community considers unacceptable, people will shun you in an attempt to shame you into compliance.

In the Burnett/Wilkinson model, the examples of so-called cancel culture are just situations where norms are changing. Actions that used to be acceptable (like a male executive referring to his female secretary as “my girl”) have become unacceptable, and actions that used to be forgivable examples of bad taste (like making racist or sexist jokes at the expense of a co-worker) are now firing offenses.

If you still believe in the old norms, then the consequences that follow from violating the new norms are extreme over-reactions. But instead of openly debating the old norms versus the new norms, old-norm advocates simply apply a pejorative label to the new-norm consequences.

Slogans like “cancel culture” and “political correctness” are used again and again to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position. … That’s why “cancel culture” tends to strike me as more of an evasive maneuver than a coherent idea with determinate content.

I was glad to see Wilkinson bring in “political correctness”, because that is an important example of the same phenomenon: Groups that used to be politically and culturally powerless, or even invisible, (like non-whites, women in the workplace, gays and lesbians, or Hindus) can now demand to be treated respectfully. If you show the kind of disrespect that used to be common, you will face consequences.

Instead of debating that norm-change openly, though, people who refuse to adjust to the new norms apply the pejorative label “political correctness” to the consequences. Like “cancel culture”, the term has no definition.


Let’s go meta. Burnett points out that labeling some action as “cancel culture” is itself an attempt to induce shame. In other words, it tries to enforce what the shamer sees as a norm.

Wilkinson’s article is also trying to enforce an unstated norm, one about how people are supposed to think and argue: Words are supposed to have definitions, and not be “merely vehicles for yay! / boo! sentiments”. Arguments are supposed to appeal to universal principles that go beyond just “my side is right and your side is wrong”. People who violate those norms should be ashamed of themselves, and the rest of us should refuse to take their arguments seriously until they change.

In academic circles, those standards go without saying. No one in any field would write in a journal article: “I’ve decided to leave ‘the elite’ undefined, so that I can apply the term pejoratively to my enemies but not my friends.” From the academy, similar norms have trickled down to the educated classes — who don’t always respect or observe them, but nonetheless accept that they ought to respect and observe them.

We sometimes forget, though, that not everyone thinks this way. In fact, there was a time when no one thought that way. Entire civilizations have functioned without definitions or universal principles.

Definition versus usage. If you’re a physicist, the word “red” has a very precise definition for you: light with a wavelength between 620 and 720 nanometers. For the rest of us, not so much. I’ve been using “red” for as long as I can remember, and I didn’t know that definition until I just looked it up.

It’s not that I have some other definition of “red”. I don’t have one at all, and yet I never feel the lack of it. I have a very clear idea what “red” means. I just can’t express it in words.

I don’t remember learning “red”, but I suspect it was the same way I’ve seen parents teach it to their children: Somebody pointed at red things and said “red”. When I tried to imitate them, they corrected my mistakes and cheered when I got it right. Eventually my performance became flawless.

Sometimes an undefined term has a paradigmatic example. At the paint store, “red” is specified by a color card: If something resembles the color card, it’s red. Similarly, “sweet” is the taste of sugar. To the extent that a taste resembles sugar, it’s sweet.

You could live your whole life without ever learning the dictionary definition of anything. Your community would train you in the proper usage of words, and when people disagreed, some paradigmatic example could resolve the dispute. The idea that you’re supposed to be able to define your words in terms of other words would just go right past you.

That’s what’s going on with “cancel culture”, “political correctness”, and the conservative phrases I listed above. They don’t have definitions, they have usages. People learn how to use these terms by hearing other people use them, then doing trial-and-error until their usage matches the rest of the conservative community.

So why isn’t Colin Kaepernick an example of cancel culture? Because it’s not used that way. If someone pointed at a dandelion or a banana and said “red”, I would just know that they’re wrong. I couldn’t explain why they’re wrong; they just are. “Red” isn’t used that way.

What does “America is a republic, not a democracy” mean? Nothing, actually. The phrase has a usage, not a meaning. Conservatives say it when liberals object to some minority-rule tactic like gerrymandering or the Electoral College or giving Wyoming the same number of senators as California, but DC and Puerto Rico none at all. If you’re hoping for some definition of “republic” that turns that usage into a meaning, though, you’re not going to get one.

Oral culture versus literate culture. If you want to see a society just beginning to grasp how to use the definitions and principles of logical thought, go read one of Plato’s dialogues. Most of them follow the same formula: Socrates is talking to somebody who uses a word, like “courage” (Laches) or “temperance” (Charmides) or “justice” (Republic). Socrates asks them what the word means, and they give him an example of its proper usage. So Laches says: “He is a man of courage who does not run away, but remains at his post and fights against the enemy.” Socrates points out that an example isn’t a definition, and they go round and round from there.

What becomes clear in these dialogues is that in Golden Age Greece, definitions were kind of a new thing, and the idea that you ought to be able to define the terms you use was novel, even a bit weird. Literate culture was still being invented, and it was trying to replace an oral culture where words had proper usages, but not definitions. Folks like Laches clearly expected a process like this: If two people aren’t sure they mean the same thing by a word, they trade examples (“Fire trucks are red.” “Ripe strawberries and tomatoes are red.”) until the agreement is clear.

Universal principles were similar innovations of literate culture. In the previous oral culture, traditional wisdom consisted of stories, and of aphorisms that might be the morals of stories. Aphorisms typically are not even trying to be universally true, like principles, but often come in contradictory pairs. So “Always look before you leap” contradicts “He who hesitates is lost”. Oral-culture discernment revolves around understanding the story you happen to be in. Is the current situation part of a look-before-leaping story or a hesitate-and-lose story? A stop-and-smell-the-roses story, or a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines story? [3]

Discernment is primarily a community process that depends heavily on tradition and authority. That gives it a resilience and stability, but also makes it prone to perpetuating a community’s bigotry and justifying the self-serving pronouncements of corrupt authorities. (It’s way too tempting to discern that we’re in a you-have-to-yield-to-me story.) Literate culture’s logic aimed at replacing discernment with more individual and algorithmic processes like measurement, calculation, and deduction.

In spite of its books and intellectuals, Evangelical Christianity is fundamentally an oral culture. Trumpist conservatism is built on top of it. One of the challenges conservative Christians have faced since pledging their allegiance to Trump is how to justify supporting a man who has literally no Christian virtues, and who appears to understand nothing about the Christian religion.

The answer they found was a story: the end of the Babylonian Captivity and the refounding of the Temple in Jerusalem. A key player in that story is Cyrus the Great of Persia, who was not a follower of Jehovah, but nonetheless was used by Israel’s God to fulfill His promise to Jeremiah and the Jewish people.

For believers who subscribe to this account, Cyrus is a perfect historical antecedent to explain Trump’s presidency: a nonbeliever who nevertheless served as a vessel for divine interest. For these leaders, the biblical account of Cyrus allows them to develop a “vessel theology” around Donald Trump, one that allows them to reconcile his personal history of womanizing and alleged sexual assault with what they see as his divinely ordained purpose to restore a Christian America.

That’s how oral culture works: This is the story we’re in, so we should do these things. No principles of action are being proposed, so you can’t argue about it in a Socratic sense. It arises from a process of community discernment, not a process of logical thought.

If you push further on Trump’s transgressions, you’re likely to hear that Christians believe in forgiveness. A text from the Bible will be quoted to prove it. Of course, they didn’t believe in forgiving Bill Clinton, but that also is Biblical, because the Bible contains both harsh and forgiving verses. Clinton was a harsh-verse situation, and Trump is a forgiving-verse situation. [4] If you can’t see that, you’re not part of the community. [5]

If you look at how QAnon works, it too is an oral culture. A few weeks ago, The New York Times profiled a “digital warrior” of QAnon.

For her, QAnon was always less about Q and more about the crowdsourced search for truth. She loves assembling her own reality in real time, patching together shards of information and connecting them to the core narrative. (She once spent several minutes explaining how a domino-shaped ornament on the White House Christmas tree proved that Mr. Trump was sending coded messages about QAnon, because the domino had 17 dots, and Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet.)

When she solves a new piece of the puzzle, she posts it to Facebook, where her QAnon friends post heart emojis and congratulate her.

This collaborative element, which some have likened to a massively multiplayer online video game, is a big part of what drew Ms. Gilbert to QAnon and keeps her there now.

“I am really good at putting symbols together,” she said.

Q has identified the story we are living inside [6], and the community now attempts to discern how current events fit into that narrative.

How should we respond? I wish I had a better answer. The main advice I have is to recognize what’s happening and stop doing things that don’t work, even if you think they should work.

The factor you have the most control over is your own thinking. So: Don’t read meaning into things that don’t have any meaning. And don’t respond as if they meant the things you think they ought to mean. “Cancel culture” and “political correctness”, for example, are a sticks-and-stones situation. If they meant something negative, and that meaning applied to something you were doing, then you should probably feel bad about it. But they don’t mean anything; they’re just words that are said in particular settings.

Rather than answer based on the meaning you imagine a phrase has, question it. If the person you’re talking to thinks a term has a meaning, let them explain it. Chances are that they can’t. Let them be frustrated rather than you. (WWSD. What would Socrates do?)

When dealing with people you know well, consider the possibility that they don’t know (or have forgotten) that literate culture and logical thought are even possible. Providing an example of a different way of thought will probably not produce sudden results. But over time it might be significant.

[1] A few conservatives also interpret this behavior as hypocrisy. Robby Soave of Reason wrote:

If you only criticize cancel culture when it’s your side being canceled, then you aren’t really attacking the concept—you’re just playing defense for your team.

[2] “If Biden really wanted unity,” Wilkinson tweeted, “he’d lynch Mike Pence.” The joke — that if Biden did lynch Pence, he’d be carrying out an ambition of radical Trumpists, thereby promoting unity — was lost on his bosses, who focused on the apparent call for violence. They don’t let conservatives get by with the it’s-a-joke excuse for endorsing violence, so they didn’t accept that excuse from one of their own either.

[3] Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato is all about life on the boundary between oral culture and literate culture. The reason Plato was so hostile to poets, in Havelock’s telling, was that poetry was the source of the aphorisms that competed with principles. As long as people revered the poets as fonts of muse-inspired wisdom, logical thought would never take hold.

[4] “The Christian’s Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same, but the medical practice changes.” – Mark Twain, Europe and Elsewhere, “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice”

[5] An example of how the same narrative can be either positive or negative: Compare the Biblical characters of Esther and Jezebel. Both are women who marry foreign kings, and use their influence to make the king more accepting of the religion of their homeland.

Esther is one of the Old Testament’s great heroines, and Jezebel one of its villainesses. The difference is almost entirely a my-team/their-team thing: Esther is a Jewish queen of Persia who uses her influence to save Jews from persecution. Jezebel is Phoenician queen of Israel who induces King Ahab to open Israel to the religion of Baal. (Trumpist pastors have begun calling Kamala Harris “Jezebel”. It appears to mean nothing more than that she’s a powerful woman they don’t like.)

[6] The story is that “elites” at the top of the media and the Democratic Party (but also some Republicans) are Satan worshipers who practice pedophilia and drink human blood. Donald Trump is the hero who is going to bring them down. The exposure and punishment of these crimes, leading to mass arrests and executions, is always just around the corner.

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  • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 10:16 am

    Excellent post! Glad to see orality vs. literacy come up in relation to contemporary political discourse. Walter Ong referred to our age of electronic media as “secondary orality” – a hybrid of oral and alphabetic worlds. Gregory Ulmer refers to the post-literacy period we’re in as “electracy,” which has its own logic – conduction: a poetic and affective logic. In electracy, deduction and induction are still at work but they are subsumed under the now dominant logic of conduction.

    • Anonymous  On February 8, 2021 at 11:16 am

      I need to hear more about what conduction is please!

      • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 11:18 am

        Conduction is a loose form of associations that create and follow inferences through pattern, metaphor, similarities and differences, details, puns, and atmosphere. Conduction is the logic of collage and montage, making it the poetics of the avant-garde. It enables assemblages of all kinds, including sampling and mixing in music. It is also the logic of QAnon.

    • paranoid  On February 8, 2021 at 12:06 pm

      I like your reference to the “secondary orality” that we experience on social media. To pin the irrationality only on conservatives ignores how much leftist Twitter, at least in my feed, is a stream of affective logic — primarily outrage and overgeneralization combined with requests to “honor the lived experience” — without the space for a full explanation of whatever the issue is.

      • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 12:42 pm

        The distinction should not be between rational/irrational or intellectual/affective but rather between ethical and unethical uses of logic. To say we are operating with conductive logic does not necessarily mean it is somehow wrong or bad. It is the language most effective for thinking and communicating in electronic media. Liberals need to use it and learn to do so in ways that are ethical and effective.

  • stlounick  On February 8, 2021 at 10:38 am

    Thank you! This was a very clear explanation I’ve read of the reason for this “division”…it’s their oral use versus my literal use. Now I have reason to continue my oral stories about tyrants and tyranny.

  • David  On February 8, 2021 at 10:38 am

    Reminds me of of when I talk with people about “racism.” Without an adjective, like structural racism, it’s hard to know what anyone actually means. So I usually ask for a definition or examples.

    And that leads to bizarre responses like, “I’m not racist. I don’t hate , I just don’t think they can be trusted,” delivered with a smile and a nod as if that were a perfectly sensible thing to say.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On February 8, 2021 at 1:18 pm

      That’s because calling someone a “racist” is perceived as an insult. Same with “fascist,” and on the right, “communist” and “socialist.” The meaning of these words is irrelevant; only the usage is important. When Rush Limbaugh calls Biden a “communist,” pointing out that BIden doesn’t advocate for the abolition of private property isn’t going to help, because “communist” in this case means “evil nasty liberal.” So when someone says that BLM is a “terrorist” group, calling them “racist” comes across as “you’re a Ku Klux Klansman who burns crosses and wants to bring back slavery.”

  • stlounick  On February 8, 2021 at 10:41 am

    I usually hear “they” don’t take personal responsibility for “their” community.

  • Jill Drury  On February 8, 2021 at 11:14 am

    Thanks for this post; it really clarifies the situation for me. It’s also very depressing: how does a society advance without logic and acceptance of objective reality? Are there any honest-to-goodness scientists who also subscribe to the oral/story-based explanation of societal standards; and if so, how do they reconcile the two mindsets? Obviously we have people in both camps; is there a tipping point beyond which if X percent or more of the population rejects objective reality in key areas Y and Z (whatever they are, if they are even possible to identify), then the society is doomed to failure in some fundamental sense?

    • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 11:21 am

      Part of what’s happening is that literate society has not adapted to electrate reality. The power of electrate logic has been exploited by advertising and mass media, fascist politicians, and cults. Meanwhile, progressives are only getting in the game, trying to figure out how this logic works and how to invent an ethics that goes along with it. I highly recommend Greg Ulmer’s book Avatar Emergency – an attempt to give electracy an ethics. Warning: it is a dense and difficult book!

      • George Washington, Jr.  On February 8, 2021 at 1:21 pm

        But isn’t much of this discourse just an echo chamber? Someone who responds positively to a Ben Garrison cartoon, is going to be enraged by the one of Colin Kaepernick at the top of the page. Asking them to define cancel culture in such a way as to include the My Pillow guy but not Kaepernick isn’t going to help.

      • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 1:26 pm

        Reply to George Washington, Jr. –
        Yes, it’s an echo chamber. Orality is based on tribal identity, and tribes maintain themselves through what literate people would now call echo chambers and filter bubbles.

  • bt  On February 8, 2021 at 11:26 am

    There’s another angle on why Trump gets forgiven and Clinton gets damned, or why they could support Trump with such devotion.

    It’s very definitional: Republicans are Virtuous and Democrats are Evil. This simple labeling allows for these different treatments. In the Conservative (Christian) Universe nothing more is needed to tee up the necessary actions.

    And like all things of faith, evidence is not needed for the beliefs. It is simply the decision of the group or of its self-styled leaders.

    Because most “Liberals” these days don’t operate much in the world of Good & Evil, as Conservatives mostly do, they really misunderstand how Conservatives operate. Liberals see Conservatives as hypocrites – But because of how Conservatives operate psychologically, they see their actions as totally reasonable.

    • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 11:34 am

      Liberals need to use the language of good and evil. Some do. Here is an excerpt from my book, Deadly Delusions: Right-Wing Death Cult, about a view of evil that comports with a liberal worldview:

      Distorted worldviews can lead people to rationalize that they are good even as they commit evil acts. Adams and Balfour state, “A moral inversion occurs when something evil or destructive has been successfully presented (repackaged) as something positive and worthwhile. Under the conditions of moral inversion, one can engage in evil acts while thinking that one is engaged in something constructive or positive” (Adams, 277). They define evil as “the actions of human beings that unjustly or needlessly inflict pain and suffering and even death on other human beings” (Adams, 276), and propose “that there is a continuum of evil and wrongdoing, with horrible, mass eruptions of evil, such as the Holocaust and other, lesser instances of mass murder, at one extreme, and the ‘small’ white lie, which is somewhat hurtful, at the other. Somewhere along this continuum, wrongdoing turns into evil” (276). Not only are right-wing people and groups committed to evil, but they have corrupted our civic institutions to the point that they are now sites of “administrative evil.” Adams and Balfour state, “The common characteristic of administrative evil is that people can engage in acts of evil without being aware that they are doing anything at all wrong.” Journalists commit evil acts when they normalize or promote right-wing propaganda, and they believe that they are doing good by supplying “balance” to their stories.

  • Bill Camarda  On February 8, 2021 at 11:38 am

    Here I thought conservatives were trying to take me back to the Dark Ages, and you’re making the case that they’re trying to take me back to preliterate societies!

    One note: since the Wil Wilkinson affair, conservatives have been describing Niskanen Center as “liberal” so they can use this as another example of leftist cancel culture. But Niskanen is mostly libertarians who’ve moved to the center because they realized that doctrinaire libertarianism doesn’t have solutions for a whole lot of big problems.

    It’s not fair at all to call them “left.” But it’s another example of how actually pointing that out always proves useless. People who make the claim are simply trying to infuriate other people who don’t know Niskanen from a hole in the wall.

    It’s like trying to tell your conservative neighbor “Don’t you realize Edmund Burke would be appalled with Donald Trump?!?” He’s never heard of Edmund Burke and couldn’t care less what Burke thought. So you find yourself the only one in the conversation who knows anything about the history of conservative thought. Just like you so often find yourself the only one in the conversation who knows anything about the text and history of the Bible.

    • weeklysift  On February 13, 2021 at 5:06 am

      Same thing about Adam Smith. He would be appalled at his name being used to justify devil-take-the-hindmost policies. But how many people have actually read “Wealth of Nations” anyway?

  • Tony Prost  On February 8, 2021 at 12:00 pm

    what domino has 17 dots? the most you can have is 12!

    • George Washington, Jr.  On February 8, 2021 at 1:28 pm

      Larger sets of dominos can have more. Here’s a double nine set which goes up to 18 dots.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On February 8, 2021 at 1:31 pm

      Larger sets have more dots. Here’s a double nine set that goes up to 18.

  • Josh  On February 8, 2021 at 12:18 pm

    The discussion of understanding words only by analogy to some story rather than through some objective meaning that can be set down on paper reminds me of the excellent Star Trek: TNG episode “Darmok”.

    • johnarkansawyer  On February 8, 2021 at 12:27 pm

      In which they learned to work together toward their common interest and gain some mutual understanding, so from your lips to God’s ear.

      • Linda Buechting  On February 8, 2021 at 1:30 pm

        I thought of that Star Trek episode too and couldn’t remember the name of it.

    • AC  On February 8, 2021 at 4:41 pm

      I was trying to find a clever way to say I agree with you, but Bono climbing highest mountains.

  • Linda Buechting  On February 8, 2021 at 12:25 pm

    I posted this on Facebook for my friends, who are mostly liberal, to read. One of the conservative ones left this comment, which I think pretty well validates the whole piece. “Yeah like Kaepernick is such an outstanding citizen and patriot” So now cancel culture only applies to patriots, and we know who gets to decide who’s a patriot.

  • HAT  On February 8, 2021 at 1:01 pm

    With all due respect, I think you are trying to get a five pound hook to hold a 50 pound picture here. It’s way too sweeping of a generalization to say that “oral cultures” don’t have universal principles. Even in literate cultures, definitions derive from usage. Ask the people who write the dictionaries. That’s setting aside operational definitions and the stipulative ones used by philosophers. Other than Socrates, who doesn’t offer too many of his own, as I recall.

    • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 1:10 pm

      Oral cultures did not have “principles” (at least the way we understand them) since they did not have concepts. They had other ways of understanding the world and of ordering relationships. Plato invented the concept based on patterns recognizable in oral epics. See Havelock, cited by Muder in his piece.

      • HAT  On February 8, 2021 at 1:49 pm

        Oral cultures did not have concepts? Seriously? That sounds to me like it comes from the same way of thinking about human beings as “aesthetics is not cognitive.” I don’t think I need to see Havelock to know that the idea that there can be human culture without concepts sounds like a fundamental conceptual error. But I suppose it depends on your definition of “concept.”

      • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 1:54 pm

        We might say oral cultures have proto-concepts rather than fully formed literate. Concepts depend on definitions. The first concept was Plato’s definition of Justice. The word Justice certainly existed before Plato defined it, but it didn’t have a fixed meaning. Another way of explaining it is that rhetors and poets in oral culture explained what Justice did. Plato explained what Justice is.
        The definition, thus the concept, depends on verbs of being (is/are/was/were/will be/etc.), which are not common in oral cultures.

      • HAT  On February 8, 2021 at 1:55 pm

        Like I said: depends on how you define “concept.”

      • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 2:01 pm

        You can’t define “concept” without first having a working prototype of what concepts are, which is something oral cultures don’t have. Oral cultures are more situational. Oral cultures think in terms of sets (situational, concrete) rather than categories (abstract). For instance, here is a quote from Blunden’s “Tool and Sign in Vygotsky’s Development”:
        Luria took Vygotsky’s erroneous distinction between a set and a concept with him on his expedition to Uzbekistan in 1930 (Luria, 1979). In one of his experiments to reveal the method of thinking of the Uzbek peasant, he showed a man, Rakmat, drawings of three wheels and a pair of pliers and asked Rakmat to say which did not belong because it was unlike the others. Rakmat refused to single out the pliers because “I know the pliers don’t look like the wheels, but you’ll need them if you have to tighten something in the wheels” (Luria, 1979, p. 70). https://www.ethicalpolitics.org/ablunden/pdfs/Tool%20and%20Sign%20in%20Vygotskys%20Development.pdf

      • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 2:19 pm

        I note that Blunden calls the distinction between sets and concepts “erroneous” and goes on to argue that non-literate people had “potential concepts.” I agree with that assessment. It’s not that oral people can’t understand that a tool, such as a saw or an ax, belongs in an abstract category and in that sense is different from the log. But oral cultures don’t have definitions in the sense that literate cultures do. The definition was invented.
        U;mer writes, “Havelock argues that the first concept was “Justice,” invented by Plato in the Republic, and that “selfhood” as identity experience and its collective politics of the democratic state are as much an invention of literacy as are alphabetic writing (technology) and school as institution (the Academy).” https://www.digitalrhetoriccollaborative.org/rhizcomics/foreword.html

      • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 3:16 pm

        A perfect Stoic response! Yes, pigeons and many other animals can think in abstract terms. But there is a difference between that and speaking in a conceptual language.
        Here is a quote from Havelock –
        The argument as completed offered the twin proposal that the notion of a moral value system was autonomous, while at the same time capable of internalization in the individual consciousness, was a literate invention and a Platonic one, for which the Greek enlightenment had laid the groundwork, replacing an oralist sense of “the right thing to do,” as a matter of propriety and correct procedure. (The Muse Learns to Write, 4)

      • HAT  On February 8, 2021 at 4:04 pm

        I am profoundly unwilling to grant Plato, whom I despise, the patent on concepts. But this isn’t my blog, and I feel I’ve overstayed my welcome here as it is, so go ahead and have the last word.

      • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 4:11 pm

        Plato is problematic, to be sure, but without Plato we do not have the institutionalization of literate practices in The Academy – these practices are now being challenged by the arrival of electracy.

      • George Washington, Jr.  On February 8, 2021 at 6:42 pm

        Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex the African Gray parrot demonstrated that animals, or at least African Gray parrots, can use language in abstract ways, and even make up new words for things they haven’t learned the English word for. Alex’s abilities went way beyond just figuring out what he needed to say to get a reward.

        Although, on some level, language learning in children may be reward-based, in that they gain the ability to effectively communicate their needs when they learn how to use language.

      • Barry Mauer  On February 8, 2021 at 6:54 pm

        Great examples and yes I agree that animals have the ability to think in abstract ways. The point Doug is making us about a historical paradigm shift from orality to literacy and to post-literacy (what Ulmer calls electracy). There is a well established discipline devoted to the study of these issues called grammatology. Books have been written about it for decades. There is a general agreement that Plato was a pivotal figure in the shift from an oral to a literate apparatus. Also that there was a shift from a literate manuscript apparatus to a print based one starting in the 15th century. Another shift is happening now. By studying past shifts we can better understand what’s going on now.

      • LdeG  On February 11, 2021 at 1:47 pm

        Barry Mauer, What would you suggest as a primer in grammatology, for someone with a Ph.D. in information science with some emphaiss in linguistics and categorization (who has nevertheless been out of academics for 40 years)?

      • Barry Mauer  On February 11, 2021 at 1:59 pm

        I recommend Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write – great intro book. Walter Ong’s Walter Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word is also a great primer. Good theory on more recent transformations – Gregory Ulmer’s Heuretics: The Logic of Invention.

    • Guest  On February 10, 2021 at 5:51 pm

      For what it’s worth HAT, I’m with you on this one. Big caveat that I’m out of my depth when it comes to grammatology. But something about this strikes me as very “Bell Curve.” Socrates inventing concepts sounds absurd and borderline racist. I guess that the Sphinx (or Gobleki Teppe, et al) was built without concepts makes it more impressive? Or, like you suggested, it depends how you define concepts. But then, doesn’t that put the whole project in the same boat as what conservatives are being accused of here (ie, in-group word usages)?

      • Barry Mauer  On February 10, 2021 at 6:04 pm

        Here’s Ulmer’s quick summary of the invention of literacy (which included concepts):
        Electracy, like literacy and orality before it, names an apparatus, meaning that it is a social machine (part technological, part ideological, part metaphysical). An analogy with the invention of literacy guides our experimental approach to electracy. The Classical Greeks invented alphabetic writing (the vowel, signs recording the spoken word, the material support for inscription); school and its practices (the Academy, the Lyceum, in which were invented the categories, method, concept, logic — in short: science); individual and collective identity behaviors (selfhood, democratic city state). The question is: what are the electrate equivalents of the literate institutional practices and identity formations? Despite all the explicit statements made by leading commentators rejecting technological determinism, much of the best theorizing of new media and digital technology in general today neglects the insights of “apparatus”: that the Internet is an emerging institution that is to electracy what school was to literacy; that the categorial, logical, and rhetorical practices needed to function natively in this institution must be invented, and moreover that the invention of an image metaphysics (the equivalent of what Aristotle accomplished for the written word) has its own invention stream, independent of the features of modern recording equipment. A shorthand version of what Konsult Experiment proposes is to enact the electrate equivalent of essence. Literate category formation (aka metaphysics) functions by means of definitional determination of essence (that without which a thing may not be what it is). This categorial operator was used to organize every aspect of literate civilization, including the social construction of identity in terms of essences.

      • Barry Mauer  On February 10, 2021 at 6:28 pm

        Of course oral cultures had amazing accomplishments and were incredibly sophisticated. The key to the invention of concepts (as in metaphysics) was that Plato and Aristotle extracted them from oral culture by scanning the features of orality that had been written down. Writing down the epics allowed philosophers to gather the features of justice, love, the good, etc. from oral proto-concepts and to codify them as part of a metaphysical system. Writing was the technology that allowed Plato and Aristotle to turn proto-conceptual “features” into concepts. The amazing work of Ong, Havelock, Goody, McLuhan, Derrida, Ulmer, and many other grammatologists bears this out.

      • Guest  On February 11, 2021 at 12:03 pm

        Thank you for the intro and reading list, Barry, always appreciated. I’ve been putting off McLuhan for too long. Nice to get a little push in that direction.

        Because I’m under-read here I can only raise questions and note some red flags. I don’t doubt that the introduction of written language coincides with cultural changes, that the printing press was monumental, and that the internet may surpass it in terms of impact. I am curious about the relationship between oral and written and electracy, and wonder if things are messier at the borders than what seems to be presented. In the Plato example, he is explicitly drawing directly from oral traditions in his formulations. Is there a chicken-egg dynamic here? Are there other forces at play?

        Shifting to larger framing issues, the idealization of the Greeks as the inventors of thought often accompanies some prejudice. For example, there’s a strain of conservative right-wing thought that makes a fetish of “Jerusalem and Athens” to the erasure of the history other peoples. My limited understanding is that Archaic Chinese and Sanksrit for example have written traditions at least as long as the Greeks and that investigations of these cultures aren’t considered science or metaphysics largely as a matter of bias and in-group word usage.

        In terms of red flags, the grouping of current-day Americans into a hierarchy of advanced modern literates and more primitive oral-based people comes off as self-serving and, to my ears, echoes some of the racist missteps chronicled in Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. The argument presented by Doug seems to boil down to “we can’t understand these people because these people are illiterate morons and we are modern literate smart people.” To me, it comes off as a dressed up NPR version of the conservative “all dems are libtards” posture. That said, it does seem obvious that there is a disconnect between political affiliations down to the level of thought/language. I need to do more reading, but group-think dynamics feels like a more solid, and less self-serving, starting point.

      • Barry Mauer  On February 11, 2021 at 12:43 pm

        Hi Guest, In response to your great comments –
        There is definitely an overlap between the apparatuses of oral-manuscript-print-analog-electracy. There are numerous books addressing these overlaps – one that comes to mind is David Bolter’s Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Bolter’s argument is that every new apparatus begins by remediating the old. A Greek example would be the writing down of the oral epics.

        But I would also argue that the new apparatuses are marked by genre inventions that were built upon new technologies. To cite one example of apparatus shift, the invention of print technology occasioned inventions in information practices such as the textbook (Ramus 1543), essay (Montaigne 1570), newspaper (Carolus 1605), novel (Cervantes 1605), and encyclopedia (Diderot 1751). Print also led to the regularization of spelling, grammar, and typography and textual practices such as footnotes, bibliographies, and indexes. These inventions accompanied shifts in human subject formation, which included the concepts of authors and critics, the experience of an inner self (an effect enhanced by reading), and the notion of democratic citizens of nation states. The resulting explosion of knowledge, which apparatus theory understands as a memory prosthesis, has profound historical effects. Movements such as the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment are difficult to imagine without the invention of print.

        In terms of race and culture, there are numerous scholars in the field making broad discoveries about the ways western apparatuses were used to oppress others and about the ways other societies invented their own apparatuses. Foucault’s work, such as in The Order of Things, addresses some of these questions, as does Edward Said’s Orientalism. Some more examples include Baotong Gu’s From Oracle Bones to Computers: The Emergence of Writing Technologies in China, and Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy.

        We can recognize that the Athens-Jerusalem hybrid produced a powerful metaphysics that ended up dominating much of the world, and do so without fetishizing it. Doing so allows us to note the ways in which imperialism and global media are leading to a new hybrid that expands the Greek-Judeo-Christian metaphysics that includes the Afro-Caribbean. Ulmer deals with this hybrid in his book Internet Invention.

        Grammatologists don’t make equations like orality = dumb or literacy = smart. Rather, each apparatus has its own forms of genius that allowed for flourishing in the world given the tools at hand. What we’re dealing with at the moment, and what Doug was addressing, is that there is a metaphysics disconnect between liberals and right wingers, who have no allegiance to literate rules of argument such as following the law of non-contradiction. Instead of saying they’re stupid the point is to recognize what they are doing. For instance, QAnon requires quite a bit of invention and is a mythic-poetic exercise – about as far from science as it gets. We can acknowledge how dangerous it is at the same time as we recognize that it also has its own form of logic.

      • Guest  On February 11, 2021 at 5:23 pm

        Another great comment, you’re outdoing yourself, Barry! Thank you.

        I certainly have plenty to read, but I confess I still have skepticism regarding the special primacy of Plato specifically or the West generally. A more cosmopolitan approach would probably be more accurate (ie, written language and concepts in China pre-dating Plato; the experience of an inner self being explicitly explored and refined in India prior to Socrates, etc) and may help head off some of the cultural biases and prejudices we all carry, even in (especially in, per Gould) “objective science.” All that of course would be besides the more meat and potatoes stuff around investigating how written language and other technology evolve with any given culture.

        What is less clear to me is how viable it is to map this stuff onto the current political climate and in the left vs right context specifically. I can acknowledge that any grammatologist worth their salt wouldn’t make a call like orality being dumb and literacy being smart, but that sure seems to be the subtext of Doug’s piece here. I don’t think either party has a monopoly on the mental capacity for the law of non-contradiction. Sure, the hypocrisy of the right is loud and clear for any Sift reader. But if we think that’s something only the other guy does, then we are at once deluding ourselves and positioning ourselves as less welcoming to convince-able people at the edges.

      • Barry Mauer  On February 11, 2021 at 7:00 pm

        Thank you for the comment. Clearly there’s a lot going on in our political moment and I cannot claim that grammatology can provide all the answers we need. It is a frame and an important one.

        In terms of Plato and Aristotle, I would say their impact on history is incalculable. Before Aristotle there were no written treatises on anything. With Aristotle we have the Poetics, The Rhetoric, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, The Organon (study of formal logic), Metaphysics, Physics, and On the Soul (psychology). Many of these books are still considered the foundations of modern liberal education. Plato and Aristotle invented western metaphysics. They invented the institution of school based upon writing. They took power away from an old guard of oral mystical poets and competed (successfully) against their competitors for establishing literate paradigms such as the Sophists, Stoics, Skeptics, and others. Not that all of that is a good thing necessarily. But it is indisputable whose influence was greater.

        Their thought also contained the conceptual tools that would give rise to challenges against their hegemony, such as Nietzsche’s attacks on them and those of the post-structuralists. Much as Freud’s or Einstein’s work was born of science but turned the idea of “objective reality” on its head, the literate revolution in Greece gave later generation the tools to challenge its assumptions and practices.

        I have a book out that addresses our current political situation – titled Deadly Delusions: Right-Wing Death Cult. I don’t draw much on grammatology in it. Instead, I look at the problem of right wing rhetoric and violence in terms of mental health issues like denial and delusion, and how these afflictions emerge at a communal level in cults.

        In more recent work (a chapter soon to be published) I put the right-wing reaction in terms of anti-Enlightenment. The Enlightenment (which owed much of its inspiration to the Greeks as well as to the spread of literacy brought about by the printing press) sought to benefit collective well being with science and reason. We can certainly critique the blind spots in Enlightenment thinking – and I do – but it is clear that the right wing, much more so than the left, rejects the Enlightenment, to disastrous effect.

        What I argue in other works, particularly my work based on Gregory Ulmer’s theories and methods, is that we need to invent new electrate wisdom methods to supplement those of the Greeks. These forms of writing/thinking have names such as MyStory, Repulsive Monuments/Abject Monuments, Clipography, and Kurating (this last term comes from work I am currently producing). These forms draw not only from the Greeks, but also from the wisdom traditions and practices of Africa, Asia, and Native people around the world.

        Right now, the electrate sphere is dominated by enemies of the Enlightenment – advertising, propaganda, cults – and these forces do not have human well being at heart. Enlightenment thinkers, largely because of their allegiance to print technologies and modes of thinking, have criticized digital and analog media without giving us methods we can use to shape the new culture. When I was Ulmer’s student, almost 30 years ago, he said to us students that we needed to be the Platos of our age, the point being that we want to shape the new apparatus to benefit humanity (and we need not agree with Plato’s beliefs to do so). If Plato could do it for his age, we could do it for ours.

        Our situation in relation to electronic media is similar to that of people in the first years after the invention of the printing press. Sure, the Bible was reproduced and spread widely, but so were propaganda, lies, and all kinds of dangerous texts. Wars and massacres resulted. But institutions were formed to make use of the new technology and to shape it for human well-being. Think of academic presses, libraries, journals, and so on – aimed at verifying knowledge and serving as gatekeepers. We are in the early days of electronic media and we are reacting to the chaos that has been unleashed. The scale of the problem is vastly greater than what people faced in the early days of the printing press, and the stakes today – including the possible extinction of most forms of life on Earth – much larger. We don’t have the luxury of a few hundred years to respond appropriately.

      • weeklysift  On February 13, 2021 at 6:10 am

        I’ll add something to Barry’s reading list that addresses the “primacy of the West” issue: “The Shape of Ancient Thought” by Thomas McEvilley. He traces the connection between Greece and India. Simplifying a great deal, a “monism complex” of ideas comes up from India and influences notable pre-Socratic Greeks like Parmenides. A rapid development happens in Greece over about 300 years, and then those Greek productions re-enter India.

        I think the book pissed off scholars on both sides — the ones that wanted either Greek or Indian philosophy to be primal, and were offended by the notion of mutual influence.

        I believe that something unique and important did happen in Golden Age Greece, just as something unique and important happened in Western Europe during the Galileo/Newton era. But both of those eras had deep roots, and similar developments might well have happened somewhere else eventually. I think the story is of a fortuitous confluence of factors rather than some deep racial genius.

      • Barry Mauer  On February 13, 2021 at 10:19 am

        Thank you for the reference to “The Shape of Ancient Thought” by Thomas McEvilley. It’s worth pointing out that the Greeks took their alphabet from the Phoenicians, but that they amended it by adding vowels, which turned out to be of critical importance to the increased power of writing.
        Absolutely we can see secondary orality as a revenge on Plato. It’s not a brand new problem, as the emergence of analog media (photography, film, audio recording, radio, etc.) had already challenged the hegemony of writing starting in the 19th century. The rise of fascism in the 20th century was all about mis-using these technologies for disruptive purposes, to destroy the regimes built during the Enlightenment. Crucially, the most powerful analog media – radio, cinema – were one-to-many technologies and lent themselves to use by dictators. The digital technologies we are dealing with now are many-to-many and their effects are more analogous to viral pandemics (the irony is not lost on me).
        I see the leftist and avant-garde critics and artists of the 1920s and 1930s as having made significant interventions to redirect these technologies away from fascism. For instance, the Frankfurt School and Walter Benjamin were trying to grasp the power and effects of new media, and Benjamin in particular (his Arcades Project, for instance) were aimed at mobilizing it for liberatory purposes. Same with George Bataille and the members of the College of Sociology. The Surrealists and, later, the Situationists and Fluxus, etc. were experimenting with ways to create a healthy society around these new media. For all their flaws, they were at least trying to give us alternatives to fascism, Stalinism, and corporate capitalism – the three systems that profited most from analog (and later digital) media.

  • Anonymous  On February 9, 2021 at 11:08 am

    So “Biden is a communist” basically means “Biden has cooties”

    • weeklysift  On February 13, 2021 at 5:17 am

      That sums it up pretty well. The added factor is that Biden has the same brand of cooties as all the other people the speaker has called “communists”. An outsider may be able to look at the collection and invent a definition retrospectively, but probably that definition will have nothing to do with public ownership of the means of production, and will have a lot to do with tribal identification.

  • Duffy K  On February 9, 2021 at 3:24 pm

    Can you share how your assessment that these loaded terms are essentially meaningless is supported or undercut by modern cognitive linguistics or semantics?

    And what relevant information the field might bring to bear on the efficacy of lexical definitions over radial categories with paradigmatic/prototypical examples (e.g. for “red”, chair, etc)?

    • weeklysift  On February 13, 2021 at 5:30 am

      Wish I could. As I say in one of the responses below, I was stretching my understanding in this post. I am not a trained philosopher, but was popularizing some ideas that I think need wider circulation.

  • LdeG  On February 9, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    I has been a long time since I spent any time on epistemology and linguistics, but it seems to me that “literate culture” and “oral culture” are being used here in a very different sense than I would. Define your terms 😉 I would say, according to the history definitions of “literate” and “oral” that most of even Western culture is oral. Very few people read much, and most people, from farmers to research scientists, obtain information and answers to question by asking another person who they believe will know, or be able to point them to a source. In the case of a researcher, that source may be written.

    • Barry Mauer  On February 9, 2021 at 3:56 pm

      In the discipline of grammatology, literacy (in contrast to orality) refers to the governing logic of the society rather than to the particular person. So, even if a specific person in a society is using oral speech, their speech is affected by literate modes of thought, and even a person who is technically illiterate would be exposed to literate modes of thought.

    • weeklysift  On February 13, 2021 at 5:23 am

      One of the reasons I’ve been hanging back in this discussion is that Barry seems to have a deeper understanding of this area than I do. I was stretching myself to write this, while it seems to be right in his wheelhouse.

      Elaborating what he says above, oral culture doesn’t mean “illiterate culture”. That would be absurd, because one of the first serious things a culture does when it gets writing — beyond writing trade receipts and royal proclamations — is that somebody writes down the key texts that have been passed down by recitation. That’s what the world’s great scriptures are.

  • Tom Wittmann  On February 9, 2021 at 10:21 pm

    One of your best.

    • Porlock Junior  On February 10, 2021 at 2:40 am

      Heartily agree. This is a real keeper.

  • Barry Mauer  On February 10, 2021 at 6:08 pm

    At the heart of the discussion started here by Doug is the issue of non-contradition (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_noncontradiction) which was the basis for Aristotle’s codification of Plato’s invention of the definition. What we encounter in right-wing “secondary orality” or electrate logic is a total evasion of these “laws” of definition. For right wingers, words don’t have fixed meaning and attempts by liberals and leftists to challenge right wingers on “contradictions” in their use of terms comes to nothing.

    • weeklysift  On February 13, 2021 at 5:27 am

      I’m curious if much work has been done connecting secondary orality to the poetry of a literate culture. In poetry, the point of a word is the impact it has, and if it carries multiple meanings simultaneously, so much the better. Secondary orality seems like the poets finally getting their revenge on Plato.

  • Paul Larson  On February 15, 2021 at 11:18 am

    This discussion makes me want to go back to the work of Walter Ong in his 1978 book “Orality and Literacy,” I think he makes some similar points, but about earlier cultures.

  • Anonymous  On February 17, 2021 at 8:00 pm

    This is a very informative piece. This shows me that the new norm is not willing to discuss or debate their decisions of a new order. Forgiveness is only one sided. The new norm is the only way and if you don’t agree then you will be crushed. Its OK to have ideas if you agree with the New Order.
    Unfortunately many Dictatorships and Communist regime have started with these same ideas

  • DisappointedReader  On March 4, 2021 at 11:59 pm

    This was linked in a discussion of cancel culture. I read through it, and sir, you are a hack. You can actually admit that the purpose of cancel culture is to circumvent discussion and shame people into compliance, you can admit that there are conservatives who apply the standard consistently, you even had a very insightful discussion of how oral culture functions within conservatism. How can you understand all of that and then come to such an idiotic conclusion that one should simply treat cancel culture as an empty phrase void of meaning? This is like throwing out the testimony of a crime victim because it was written ungrammatically. There are people who are that heartless or sick-minded, but they are rotten to their epistemological core–they would have never admitted what you have here or shown any degree understanding of others’ perspectives. Is this some perverse version of O’Brien’s speech in 1984 where you take pleasure in showing the reader that you have a view of the truth from where you’re standing, but you choose to say what makes you powerful instead? Disgusting propagandist.


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