The Talking Cure

Jacques Lacan’s famous discussion of Freudian psychoanalysis as a form of talking cure, in which the analyst is able to shape the meanings of the subject’s hangups and mental infirmities, came to my mind during the recent exchange between Rick Garnett, Paul Horwitz, Rob Vischer, and others (see here) on the issue of quizzing political candidates about how their religious beliefs will affect their decisions.  Yesterday, as my colleague Mark notes, Ross Douthat had a column on the issue, with a number of interesting recommendations for journalists.

But I had a thought that may strike some as perhaps a little heterodox.  I want to make a point in (partial, limited) defense of the Rortian “religion as conversation-stopper” view (which Rorty only really very partially revised after an elegant intervention by Jeffrey Stout a few years ago).When candidate X makes a speech in which she claims that she is informed in her thinking about political issue Y by her religious beliefs and traditions, this is sometimes (not always, but often enough) not the sort of claim that can be understood thoroughly by the voting public through thorough public discussion, stimulated by extensive question and answer sessions devised by journalists otherwise hostile to the candidate’s political position.  What is more likely to happen is that religion — whether the candidate’s or not — will be used as a kind of instrument through which the journalist’s political orientation can be reaffirmed and re-cemented.

Two points are often heard against this view, which I’ll call Response One and Response Two.  Response One is that this is the candidate’s own fault.  He, after all, is using religion in his speech for political advancement of one kind or another.  Why is it not then fair to use religion to knock him down — to erase the political advantage that he has gained, and to strike political blows against him to boot?  The candidate did not have to mention religion; but now that he has, religion is “fair game.”  Response Two is that engaging with the candidate’s religious views takes religion and the candidate himself seriously — it engages in discursive good faith with the candidate.  We do not say to the candidate, “You have improperly introduced a forbidden subject into the political exchange.”  We say instead, ‘We want to understand you, and since your religious tradition seems to be important enough to you that you raise it to explain, or ground, or at least situate your political position, we would like to probe your religious views by the medium of public discourse.  We’d like to understand your view, which you’ve informed us is religiously grounded, by talking through it to see if we find it persuasive.  Talking will help.”

I want to examine the responses in turn.  Response One is motivated by an adversarially political aim, and it seems to me that it is a true reflection of the way in which political discourse is and always has been conducted.  That is because political discourse is, fundamentally (though of course not universally), shallow.  Political speeches are in the main occasions for scoring shallow points, using facile and accessibly appealing rhetoric.  They are occasions for giving people something easy to cheer.  The introduction of religion into a shallow speech does not make the speech profound; it only gives a shallow speech religious color.  Naturally, there have been beautiful political speeches that have used religious imagery or made religious references, and the beauty of those speeches has been enhanced by that imagery or those references.  But the introduction of a religious reference does not alter the generally shallow quality of political discourse.  

Since so much political speech-making is shallow, why should we expect that political commentators and talking heads who are deeply opposed to the political positions staked out by a particular candidate who makes a speech with a religious reference are interested in knowing in any depth about the candidate’s religious views?  They are mostly, of course, interested in scoring correspondingly easy political points among their own readers, just as the candidate was interested in scoring easy points among his constituents.  Religion is an instrument through which each political partisan can make his or her hay more effectively; it is conscripted to be the handmaid of politics, and the politician or the journalist, like the psychotherapist, imprints the meaning that he wishes on the subject — the listening public.  The appearance of religion – pro or con – is not likely to change this quality of political discourse.

That brings me to Response Two — the view that when a candidate raises a religiously based argument, it will help our political discourse to talk through the candidate’s religious ideas, because it will give us a better sense of what the candidate is all about.  As an initial matter, Response One seems to be somewhat incongruous with Response Two.  If we were really interested in understanding the candidate’s religious tradition, in knowing precisely what role religion has played in the development of the views that the candidate is now expressing in her speech, we would recognize that it is extremely unlikely that people who are strongly opposed to the candidate’s political views would be in a very good position to serve as interlocutors on this issue. 

But let’s set that point aside.  Suppose we were dealing with a pure Response 2 kind of person, someone with no ideological or political axe to grind and who wished really to understand the religious underpinnings of a candidate’s views.  Sometimes that sort of person can, with effort, illuminate something profound about the relationship of religion and politics.  When that happens, it is lovely to behold.  The difficulty, though, is that contemporary political discourse is exceptionally ill-suited to achieve the kind of engagement and understanding that the Response 2 person desires.  Response 2′s model of political discourse is…academic discourse, whose beau ideal is a kind of Socratic dialogue in extenso, across years of deepening exchange.  And yet even in academic discourse, the dark byways and subterranean passages of a person’s thought are exceptionally difficult to uncover in full.  Certainly, that kind of knowledge about someone else’s religious views cannot be had by recourse to a series of simple and uninteresting questions cooked up in response to simple and uninteresting political rhetoric.  The essential triviality of ordinary political discourse – the rapidity with which it is conducted, the lack of complication that is the leitmotiv of the political talking point, its stubbornly ephemeral nature – cannot be remedied by the talking cure, whether we talk about religion or any other similarly consequential subject.

In fact, there may be a cost to embracing the talking cure too ardently — the risk of mixing up Responses One and Two.  Most ordinary discourse about politics and religion, just like any other subject, is shallow, and this is as true for politicians as it is for journalists and the rest of us.  There is nothing wrong with that at all; shallowness gets us through the day — thank God for it.  If I had to really think seriously about most of the things I read and hear, I would find myself paralyzed and probably incoherent (more than usual).  Yet what is problematic is to treat shallow discourse as something other than what it is because it claims the mantle of the talking cure – because it says, “Oh, but I’m just hearing the other side out.  Audi alteram partem, after all, and respond in kind.”  In the political arena, this is often not a tenable position, and rarely less tenable than when one is inquiring after a person’s religious views.  What is more likely is that under cover of engaging in Response Two discourse, we will get more discourse partaking of Response One without declaring itself as such. 

This piece, from the Chicago Tribune and re-reported in the LA Times (it was just that appealing, apparently), is, I think, a nice example.  Titled, “A Few Catholics Still Insist Galileo Was Wrong,” the piece reports on the views of some people who believe that the Earth is the center of the universe.  This position is associated by the author with Catholicism without much of an attempt to clarify what the official position of the Catholic Church today is on the subject.  Instead, the author notes coyly that a large gathering of these people was held close by the University of Notre Dame.  The whole piece is meant as a kind of lightweight ribbing of Catholicism.  It is shallow, just like so much that gets talked and written about today.  That’s perfectly fine.  In fact, it is largely futile to think that the dominant mode of political and cultural discourse could look very different than this.  Insisting too much that modes of discourse which obtain in academia can be superimposed wholesale on, as Oakeshott had it, “the world of practice” can be deluding.  It can deceive us into believing that Response One is just a regrettable epiphenomenon of political discourse, to be remedied by the talking cure. 

Better, at least sometimes, to take religion as a conversation stopper; at least then, perhaps we’ll have some blessed silence. — MOD (X-posted MOJ)

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