Public Diplomacy: Words and Realities

12 November 2011


It is a very common occurrence in the US to hear people say things like, “words matter” or “language matters.” When I was at the 100YSS symposium last month in Orlando, a couple of the speakers made this point in their presentations, discussing the importance of avoiding past errors of colonial overreach, in part by avoiding the language of colonialism. I recently listened to a set of lectures from The Teaching Company, Explaining Social Deviance, in which the professor made a point about the powerful cultural victory that groups win when they can get others to change their language. And, of course, people in the US are notorious for renaming problems or renaming groups to which social stigma has become attached. This is part of the venerable US tradition of re-invention: if you fail in one town, you move on to another town, reinvent yourself, and have a second chance at success.

I think that Americans place altogether too much emphasis on language, so much so that it gets in the way of substantive thought and action. Yes, words matter, and yes, language matters, but policies and practices matter much more than language. One can talk all one likes about, say, having a “reset” of relations with some nation-state, but unless the rhetorical reset is followed by actual changed polices and practices, the reset will be as illusory and deceptive as the words used to describe it. If you make a change in rhetoric without making a proportional and related change in reality, you risk bringing discredit upon yourself.

Perhaps I am being too hard on Americans. Every nation-state indulges in duplicitous and disingenuous public diplomacy in which it attempts to get results through words alone. And, of course, sometimes these efforts are effective. Words can have consequences. If you shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, these words can have disastrous consequences. That is an obvious negative example of the power that words can have. What would be an obvious positive example of the power that words can have? I can’t think of an example right now, as I write this, but I am sure that there are examples. Most of the examples I can think of are subtle instances when individuals or groups are given new hope (and therefore resolve and resilience) when they hear others speak out on their behalf. This can be powerful, but it doesn’t have the dramatic quality of the “fire” instance above.

I suggested that maybe I was being too hard on Americans. It is perhaps equally American to say that, “actions speak louder than words,” or, “talk is cheap,” or, “fine words butter no parsnips,” or even, “sticks and stone will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” And it is a commonplace in the US today to hear someone dismissed because they “talk the talk” but they don’t “walk the walk.” Thus there is a basis in popular culture both for the over-estimation of words and the denigration of words.

Of course, the most effective policy is to both talk the talk and walk the walk, and the concern to be seen backing up one’s words with actions is not new. We find this passage in Plato’s seventh letter:

With these views and thus nerved to the task, I sailed from home, in the spirit which some imagined, but principally through a feeling of shame with regard to myself, lest I might some day appear to myself wholly and solely a mere man of words, one who would never of his own will lay his hand to any act. Also there was reason to think that I should be betraying first and foremost my friendship and comradeship with Dion, who in very truth was in a position of considerable danger. If therefore anything should happen to him, or if he were banished by Dionysios and his other enemies and coming to us as exile addressed this question to me: “Plato, I have come to you as a fugitive, not for want of hoplites, nor because I had no cavalry for defence against my enemies, but for want of words and power of persuasion, which I knew to be a special gift of yours, enabling you to lead young men into the path of goodness and justice, and to establish in every case relations of friendship and comradeship among them. It is for the want of this assistance on your part that I have left Syracuse and am here now. And the disgrace attaching to your treatment of me is a small matter. But philosophy — whose praises you are always singing, while you say she is held in dishonour by the rest of mankind — must we not say that philosophy along with me has now been betrayed, so far as your action was concerned? Had I been living at Megara, you would certainly have come to give me your aid towards the objects for which I asked it; or you would have thought yourself the most contemptible of mankind. But as it is, do you think that you will escape the reputation of cowardice by making excuses about the distance of the journey, the length of the sea voyage, and the amount of labour involved? Far from it.” To reproaches of this kind what creditable reply could I have made? Surely none.

Plato did not want to be “a man of mere words,” and so he went to Syracuse. Plato had talked the talk, and he knew he needed to walk the walk or have his words fall into disrepute.

Plato did not want to me mistaken for a mere man of words.

Twentieth century linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin introduced the distinction between the performative and constantive functions of language. (I previously discussed the work of J. L. Austin in Meet the new boss, same as the old boss) A performative utterance is an assertion that does something. A paradigmatic example of a performative utterance is making a promise. If I say, “I will meet you at 10:00 am tomorrow in front of the bank,” I am making a promise, and in making a promise I have performed an action by speaking. Constantive utterances, on the other hand, describe the world and do not constitute an action in and of themselves.

J. L. Austin, Unsung Diplomat Extraodinaire

It should be obvious that performative utterances occur in a context, and that any reasonable person will always compare words and actions and view the two as integral. Where there is a failure to integrate words and actions, words will not be trusted and actions will be viewed with suspicion. If you know that I never show up on time when I promise to meet you at 10:00 am, you will take account of this. Perhaps you will plan to meet me, but you won’t show up until 10:30. And perhaps I know, in turn, that you will be thinking I will be late, so as I promise to meet at 10:00 am, I may already be assuming that we will meet at 10:30, perhaps because I know that when you promise to meet, you may show up but are never quite ready to go at that moment.

Not all performatives require diligent performance after the fact. An act of naming confers a name than an object will bear thereafter. If people choose not to use the name, or to use a different name, or to change the name, or use several names, that does not alter the fact that something has been named. However, naming implies a certain authority on the part of the individual conferring the name. If I declare that, starting tomorrow, the Brooklyn Bridge will hereafter be known as the Hollywood Bridge, no one will take me seriously, and no one is going to stop calling the Brooklyn Bridge the Brooklyn Bridge and instead call it the Hollywood Bridge. It is not my place to be naming bridges.

The Hollywood Bridge?

Naming can be a crucially important performative task. Those conversant with the philosophy of reference will know the influence that Kripke’s causal theory of reference has had (I have mentioned this perviously in my post on Ecological Temporality). More familiar to most readers will be the role of ascribed identity in sociological theory (which I briefly discussed and extrapolated in Six Species of Political Identity).

In labeling theory, an individual accepts a label applied to them and “lives up” or “lives down” to the label, turning the label into a self-fulfilling prophecy. A label is a name, so if you have managed to fix a label, you have engaged in the performative task of naming. And we all know that getting a label to stick is central to political propaganda. Thus it is sometimes taken as a task of public diplomacy to coordinate a campaign of many different people saying the same thing, hoping that the particular formulation employed gains common currency, thereby becoming the label with which society identifies the object of the campaign.

Even here, however, there can be abortive performative utterances. If there is a widespread impression that a smear campaign (or push polling, or what-have-you) is propagating an injustice, the public can respond by having a worse impression of those who organized the smear campaign than the object of the campaign, which latter benefits from public sympathy from the perception of an unjust attack. Thus an attempt to conduct a naming and shaming campaign must have a certain level of coherence with a pre-existing reality or it can be counter-productive. This is a retroactive instance of the general principle that a performative utterance that is not followed by the performance of actual actions is a merely abortive performative. That is to say, here a performative utterance must be preceded by certain actions in order for it to be effective. This is a still-born performative.

Diplomacy has been called the “art of the possible,” and much of the possibility that diplomacy attempts to limn and to probe rests upon both what is subtly said and what is with equal subtlety left unsaid. And so it is that even a disconnect between words and deeds can be exploited to diplomatic effect. Diplomacy often openly exploits the cognitive dissonance of a presumed rival or enemy, by making strong statements of public diplomacy that differ from equally strong statements of private diplomacy. (As when a representative proclaims, “We condemn the actions of x in the strongest terms,” even while other diplomats are privately approaching the same party and saying, “We’re with you all the way on this, we just have to say these things for public consumption.”) Or, alternatively, in contrast to the organized smear campaign, an organized campaign of disinformation is undertaken when strongly worded but contradictory statements are issued from widely diverse sources, thus keeping the target of the disinformation campaign a little off-balance and not knowing what to expect next.

Such performative diplomacy, if you will allow me to call it such, will always be subject to comparison to reality, but in a sufficiently chaotic context (say, war, or simply the chaos of 24/7 news coverage in which a premium is placed on breaking new stories rather than following up on old stories) this comparison may come too late to be effective, and it will only be in soul-searching months or years later when it is recognized that events spun out of control, or were directed by canny diplomacy and propaganda in this way with an intention that they spin out of control. Such matters can be instigated, but one cannot count on their success. At least as much chance as cunning is involved. It is far from a sure thing, but it can be at least a gambit. Where other options are unacceptable or nonexistent, a gambit can be better than nothing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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