Pub Bores and Politics

Written by Stephen Rainey

Pub bet: I bet you can’t button your coat up. You smell a rat, but go along with it, fastening you coat to see what’s up. I claim a victorious pint of plum porter because you close your coat starting with the top button and moving down. You didn’t button your coat up but down.

A pub bet works, to the extent that it does, by subverting a conventional meaning of some phrase or word. We know buttoning up has nothing to do with direction, but there is a direction word in the phrasal verb. Cheeky subversion leads to endless mirth. 

There’s clearly no ethical problem in the minor subversion and misleading that characterises a pub bet. For bigger, or for real bets, we’d be concerned if subversion like this went on. The genie that granted wishes on a tight, close, literal meaning of words used, rather than on the basis of what the wisher probably wanted, would be a scary being. 

The subversion of convention can be harmless fun, and it can contain some seed of danger. In each case what’s common is an intentional suspension of negotiation, of coming to an agreement about meaning. In the pub bet, it’s my insistence on a narrow reading of ‘button up’ that carries things. There’s no fun in our discussing things and agreeing the phrasal verb has no implicit compass. The genie’s interpretation of what ‘rich’ means in your wish to be so might be frightening where this is taken as an attribute of a meal, not heaviness of a purse. 

In reality, pub bets are little more than occasional irritations in nights out, and there are no genies. But the suspension of discursive agreement as a modus operandi of interpersonal conduct nevertheless appears to be a growing concern. 

Leave vs. Remain is one high-profile binary opposition where this is very clearly so. It’s the fainting canary in a political situation devolving to pub bet mentality when what’s needed is a concentration on discussion. The narrative underwriting this degenerating politics is one of them and us, victory and loss, power and subjugation. That this narrative has taken such quiet hold of politics is a serious ethical concern, with far-reaching socio-political ramifications. 

Once a side has been taken in a two-place bun fight, everybody on each side must muck in to win gains for their side. Identity becomes tied up in where you stand. The discussion, under these conditions, becomes a means to protecting the identities of those involved. Practically, in the U.K. for instance, this has led to those on the side of parliamentary sovereignty undermining that very sovereignty in the pursuit of a notional win.

In ordinary times, this sort of contradiction might lead to consequences. Without an MO of discursivity, however, all that matters is a win. A ‘win’ in this context be entirely rhetorical. It’s sovereignty in the sense of someone winning who is wielding the word ‘sovereignty’ as their standard. It’s a win in the same way you owe me a pint for buttoning down your coat.

In her recent Uehiro Lectures, Elizabeth Anderson called this sort of thing ‘Double Down Dogmatism’ (DDD). In her discussion of DDD, Anderson notes how dismissal of refutations replaces discussion. The political function of this is to provoke distrust and resentment. It isn’t to promote a view.

The subversion of convention in a context of binary opposition and non-discursivity marks an offence against ethical public conduct in gaming public life for an imposed end not itself agreed upon by the public upon which it is being laid. It represents the use of state apparatus, evolved over generations, seeing many iterations in development, for one narrow purpose. It’s taking the Rosetta Stone for a paperweight, or developing space travel only as a means to use the moon for landfill.

Anderson’s approach was centred upon maximising the demos by (re)including as many people as possible in political discourse. This involves developing specific styles of rhetoric and dialogue designed to recognise but mollify some of the more extreme elements of that discourse. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this as an approach, I also think there is a complementary, or companion, approach which involves duties to the discourse itself. While we may have duties to people as discourse participants, they may be in tension with those to the discourse. After all, what use would maximal inclusion in a discourse be, if that discourse is so eroded as to offer no means of being advanced?

The way to see off a pedantic pub bet bore is to insist upon a wider analysis of language. We all know buttoning up doesn’t require starting at the bottom. Crucially, though, in seeing off the bet we ought not to insist that get us the pint in having lost. The erosion of language for some silly means is just a handshake we ought not to accept. That means not reaping the rewards it offers. While tempting to fall in with a side where politically things have regressed to poles, it’s the same sort of unwelcome handshake.

The erosion of politics is not only something we ought not to participate in, but something we’re not entitled to. Politics is a wider endeavour, emerging from time and settled in conventions that should be challenged carefully. In witnessing the binary creeping in, and hearing discursivity fail, the right thing is to oppose the creep and fail. The thought of a win over them, whoever they may be, might be tempting. They might be terrible. But when victory is predicated on a more general loss, it’s not much to crow about. You might have your plum porter, but now everyone thinks you’re a pedant and a bore. 

In the pub bet, you’re entitled to asserting the conventional use of words as well motivated reason to withhold plum porter from the bore. In politics, you’re entitled to what you can establish with discussion, under constraints of established conventions. These can change by means of the same procedure, but not in order to bend the procedures to some prior chosen end. In Anderson’s inclusivity approach, there is the kernel of this broader point: care for discourse is posited as something that can draw the disillusioned in. But for me, this drawing in ought not to replace political discourse overall. The discussion is owed protection sometimes as much as the identities of the people participating.

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