The Nature of Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
The rhetorical task of any civic culture is to win the adherence of citizens to a secondary set of norms that necessarily stand in a relationship of tension with the primary set of norms to which citizens always remain committed.
Civic culture as a countervailing culture
In a liberal democracy, the state is committed to treat all citizens as free individuals and to treat all individuals as equals. For such a regime to be intelligible to the governed, the members of a liberal political community must, to some extent at least, come to see themselves and one another as free and equal individuals.
This means that they must see themselves and others as not entirely defined and encompassed by family, ethnic, or religious identifications. This means that they must be able, at least for certain purposes and on certain occasions, to put aside measures of human worth based on those family, ethnic, and religious identifications and adopt a very different ranking system, one based on their identification as citizens.
Needless to say, this is an extraordinary requirement. The earliest and strongest identifications formed by human beings are shaped by family life and by the broader ethnic, class, and religious community within which the family in turn gains its identification. These identifications are woven into the very fabric of human desire and only with great difficulty can distance from them be achieved. But, unless such distance can be achieved by significant numbers of persons, a liberal democracy cannot even be established, let alone flourish. Factions will destroy it.
Every liberal democracy,
therefore, must generate some form of countervailing civic culture that has the power to
create and sustain civic identities. Further, educational processes must be invented that
will insure the effectiveness and reproduction of that civic culture.
The unique rhetorical task of a civic culture
When we, i.e., we citizens of North Atlantic liberal democracies, speak of culture, civic or otherwise, we are speaking of a sphere of human interaction in which what we traditionally identify as the rhetorical or persuasive power of speech assumes central importance. Culture encompasses the world views, ranking systems, concepts of virtue, and standards of excellence that shape human behavior and self-understanding. Brute force applied to individuals or groups can succeed in procuring from them behavior that meets desired specifications, but it cannot, by itself, secure their adherence or commitment to norms or to a conception of the good life.
To gain and retain such adherence, an ongoing process of persuasion is necessary. This ongoing process of persuasion takes different institutional, representational, and discursive forms in different types of communities. But whatever forms such processes of persuasion take, they are all subject to analysis and criticism in rhetorical terms, i.e., in terms of their logical, ethical and emotional appeals, their style, occasion, and intention.
What is true of the sphere of culture in general has special application to the specific form of culture I have called civic culture. A very special kind of persuasive process is required to gain and retain adherence to the norms proper to the standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship. As I have noted, a civic culture is a type of countervailing culture. Liberal democracy as a form of political association is defined by the rather unusual assumption that the citizens of any particular liberal democracy will disagree fundamentally in their conceptions of the good life. As members of the civic community, citizens will also be members of one or more particularistic cultural communities.
A civic culture, then, has a very special sort of persuasive task and must have a very special sort of persuasive force. A civic culture consists of a set of institutional, representational, and discursive means of persuasion. As such, it must be conceived of in terms of its rhetorical intention and effect. As in the case of all efforts of persuasion, the persuasive means available to any civic culture are addressed to a specific audience, an audience defined by a specific set of historical, economic, and social circumstances.
But, generically, the sort of audience that any civic culture must address is one composed of persons who already adhere to some specific conception of the good, some specific totalizing world view or way of life. The task of any civic culture is to win the adherence of that sort of audience to a secondary set of norms that necessarily stand in a relationship of tension with the primary set of norms to which the audience remains committed.
The first step toward addressing successfully the crisis
produced by the contemporary demise of modernist liberal civic culture is to understand
clearly the sort of persuasive or rhetorical effort involved in gaining adherence to any
particular form of civic culture. A full understanding of this sort of rhetorical effort
requires us (1) to recall at every step the rhetorical character of the very inquiry about
civic culture that we are now undertaking, and (2) to grasp clearly the rhetorical
character of the modernist liberal doctrines whose failing credibility is at the root of
the contemporary crisis of civic culture (see essay IV,2). Let
us here briefly address in a general way the first of these tasks.
The metaphysical "is" of pure theory
The most deadly misunderstanding possible regarding the nature of any inquiry about civic culture, including this one, is that such an inquiry is some sort of exercise in pure theory, i.e., an attempt simply to state what is the case for its own sake.
An exercise in pure theory by definition leaves all rhetorical considerations behind -- or at least makes all rhetorical considerations a matter external to the subject matter, a question of the greater or lesser charm of the language in which the truth is clothed. Truth claims produced by a purely theoretical inquiry, however they may be expressed, carry the force and implications of the hard metaphysical "is" of traditional Western propositional logic. Characteristic of truth claims expressing the hard metaphysical "is" is the assumption that both the truths being asserted and the subject matter being discussed exist independently of any audience.
Pure theoretical discourse, in other words, does not understand itself primarily as a rhetorical activity, an activity aimed at winning the adherence of a particular audience for a particular purpose, an activity whose outcome is valid or invalid -- i.e., whose conclusions are "true" -- only to the extent that they win audience adherence. Construed as an assertion bearing the hard metaphysical "is," for example, a statement like, "The liberal doctrine of the priority of the right over the good is a political and not a metaphysical doctrine," would be read as claiming that the doctrine in question is and always was a political doctrine, regardless how it may ever have been otherwise understood.
Inquiry about civic culture, however, can never be properly understood as an exercise in pure theory. Civic culture itself, like every other form of culture, is created, transformed, and reproduced by processes of persuasion. The norms proper to civic life must be embraced and internalized by citizens as a matter of conviction, conviction produced by the rhetorical power of the persuasive resources available to some specific form of civic culture.
The truth claims asserted in any inquiry about civic culture must not be understood as asserting audience-independent truths about an audience-independent subject matter. The "is" proper to inquiries about civic culture is not the hard metaphysical "is" of pure theoretical discourse, but rather the soft metaphorical "is" of rhetoric.
A metaphor is an act of linguistic aggression through which a speaker seeks to transform his or her audience’s understanding and behavior by means of a redescription of the subject matter at hand. If the audience buys the metaphor and transforms their speech and behavior accordingly, the subject matter is thereby transformed.
The statement above about the political nature of the liberal doctrine of the priority of the right over the good should be construed in this way. It should be construed, that is, as embodying a soft metaphorical rather than a hard metaphysical "is," as an attempt to transform the understanding and behavior of an audience through an aggressive act of redescription. If the discourse supporting this act of redescription is successful, the very subject matter itself that the discourse addresses will be transformed. Thus, an inquiry about civic culture has for its goal not changing minds so that they will conform more exactly to the nature of things, but rather changing minds in such a way that new ways of talking about and behaving with respect to civic norms first come into being.
If in this way all inquiry about civic culture must itself belong to the sphere of civic culture and therefore to the sphere of persuasive speech, then such inquiry is subject to all the usual categories of rhetorical analysis. The basic categories of rhetorical analysis are determined by the basic components of the rhetorical situation -- speaker, audience, rhetorical intention, and occasion.
A rhetorical analysis of any discourse can ask about the self-definition of the speaker and the speaker’s standpoint, the characteristics of the audience addressed by the speaker, the rhetorical effect the speaker wishes to achieve, and the specific circumstances that shape the occasion of the discourse. Such categories of analysis are irrelevant to the content of a purely theoretical discourse that aims only to state what is the case. A purely theoretical discourse is addressed to a particular audience on a particular occasion only accidentally. The subject matter addressed by a purely theoretical discourse is viewed as existing independently of audience and occasion.
On the other hand, for a proper understanding of discourse about civic culture, analysis of the discourse in terms of rhetorical categories is crucial. Regarding any particular discourse about civic culture, we must ask about the speaker’s definition of the rhetorical situation -- the speaker’s self-defined standpoint, intention, and definition of the audience and occasion.
These categories of rhetorical analysis are of course no less essential to a proper understanding of this present inquiry about civic culture. To address the crisis produced by the contemporary demise of modernist civic culture is to adopt a specific standpoint, to define a specific audience, to offer an interpretation of the occasion for the inquiry, and to intend to produce a specific transformation of the subject matter at hand.
The description of our present circumstances as "a crisis produced by the contemporary demise of modernist civic culture" is thus properly understood not as a claim about some audience-independent state of affairs, but rather a definition of the rhetorical situation that must be taken up and affirmed by its intended audience in order to exist in any sense at all.
One central task of this inquiry is to make this description of our current situation a plausible one. The aim of this inquiry is to mark out a path of response to this crisis. If the redescription of our contemporary circumstances as a crisis of civic culture remains implausible, then the proposed response to it will obviously have no application.
Further, the standpoint from which any such response is to be proposed must be appropriate to both occasion and intent. If we citizens of North Atlantic liberal democracies face a crisis of civic culture today, then we face that crisis not as members of some particular ethnic, class, or religious community or as scholars pursuing one or another professionalized field of inquiry, but rather as citizens.
The standpoint from which this crisis is addressed must therefore be defined simply as the idealized or normative standpoint of citizenship itself. In this present discourse, the appropriate self-definition of both speaker and intended audience is that proper to all citizens of contemporary liberal democracies -- even though, needless to say, all citizens will not be equally preoccupied with the purely conceptual dimensions of the cultural crisis that concern us here.
The aim of the present discourse, then, is to redescribe and thereby to transform fundamentally the very standpoint that both speaker and audience of the discourse occupy within the intended rhetorical situation, i.e., the normative standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship. To the extent that this redescription is successful, the standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship itself will be transformed in such a way as to make possible a creative response to the cultural crisis first identified by this redescription.
Page last edited: 01/20/02
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