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Open for Debate

Normative Entanglement in Public Discourse (Part 1)

5 April 2021

In an episode of The West Wing, a comment is made to the press that the fictional US President, Josiah Bartlett, is not particularly fond of green beans.[1] On the day in question, the president’s staff confront the usual mayhem of low- and high-octane problems, among them the problem of what should be done about a bunch of Oregonian green bean farmers who are objecting to the president making negative claims about green beans, in case such a claim should decrease their profits and threaten their livelihood. Perhaps a green bean related photo op would repair the damage, or perhaps the president should issue a mea culpa.

Press Secretary CJ Cregg rejects the need for such an ameliorative response. She says:

“He doesn’t enjoy [green beans]. He doesn’t think they’re bad for you, and he doesn’t think the people who make them are evil. They’re simply not his cup of tea—he doesn’t care for them! Why don’t we think the adults of Oregon will be okay with that if put to them just that way?”

In matters of public debate, especially surrounding high-octane problems, we reflexively reach for ways to anchor the debate. We check in with fact-checkers, to see what claims in the debate are untrue. We entrench behind simple declarative statements of objectively observable phenomenon, using phrases like ‘Given the fact that…’ We hunt for rationality in arguments, and appeal to each other to trust that ‘we can all be reasonable.’ When stakes are high, we reach for the stabilising ground of epistemic considerations: facts, knowledge, truth. When context and social circumstances make debates messy, the clean hard lines of ‘objective fact’ can be wonderfully reassuring.

But that very reassurance can also cause us to miss some of what is most important in a public debate. The green bean situation was not driven by a problem around what is true or what we know, namely, that the president does not care for green beans. This fact is not in doubt, and responses to the matter which suggest the president actually does enjoy green beans would be untruthful responses. The problem driving the green bean situation was a question about what the plain fact of the president’s vegetable preferences might mean for other parties in the discourse. CJ Cregg’s comment highlights the issue: people are not worried about the facticity of the claim, but about what the claim might mean for them. If a public figure as influential as the president comes out against green beans, the Oregonians worry, then a normative shift may be brought about which would motivate others to avoid green beans. CJ’s proposed response involves making these unwanted implications explicit (implications that green beans are bad for you, or that those who grow them are evil) and explicitly disavowing them, so that Oregonian bean farmers need not worry about the introduction of anti-green-bean norms into public discourse.

The microcosm of the fatuous, fictional green bean debate is a prime example of the kind of shift in thinking which, I argue, can help us move past the gridlock in far weightier public debates. Like CJ, we need to see past the tidied questions of what is known, to the far messier questions of what people care about, and what particular claims mean for them. In spirit, I am arguing against reductivism about public debate: we often need to keep the mess and complexity in view if we want to sort things out. What I offer is a specific way of handling the mess and complexity in our appraisals of public debates.[2]

Let’s start simple. Take the statement: ‘It’s cold in here.’

Is it true? Sure. We are happy for environmental perception of this kind to vary from person to person, so even if you are comfortably warm, I might find it to be cold in here. But if in response you simply say, ‘I believe you,’ I might be warranted in looking at you strangely. I’m glad you believe me, but being believed is not really the point of saying ‘It’s cold in here.’ Rather, according to Quill Kukla and Mark Lance, the point is to enact some kind of change to the normative context.[3]

The normative context tells us about how things should be; who is obligated to do what; and who is entitled to what. If we are sitting in your home and I say, ‘It’s cold in here,’ I might be asking you to close a window, or to hand me a blanket. This being your home, I am not entitled to tell you what to do; nevertheless, my statement is a polite way of introducing an obligation—on pains of being thought rude—for you to make some change to alleviate my chill.

Now, change the context. It is a sweltering hot day, and you are walking by with a pack on your back, sweating and weary. I lean out my window, gesturing with a pitcher of chilled lemonade, and say, ‘It’s cold in here.’ By saying this, I am inviting you to come into my home for a rest and relief from the heat. Ordinarily, you are not entitled to enter my home simply because it is a hot day. When I invite you in, you become entitled by that invitation to enter my home as a guest at that particular time.[4]

To properly respond to someone else’s speech act, we need to know not just what they are saying and whether to believe them; we also need to understand what changes they are enacting to the normative context. These are the kind of changes that CJ sought to block by specifying that the president was not against green beans; the normative discouragement of that vegetable applied only to his own kitchen and plate, not to the plates of the nation. CJ’s strategy is one of resisting what I call normative entanglement, stripping the claim down to an epistemic fact (‘the president does not enjoy green beans’) so that it makes no changes to the normative context (‘people should not eat/grow/buy green beans’) except by entitling people to form a belief about what the president happens to enjoy eating.

By contrast, when protestors declare that #BlackLivesMatter, they are enacting a set of normative changes to the discourse context. The claim is uttered against an implied context in which black lives are treated as if they do not, in fact, matter, and so the claim imposes an obligation to address widespread injustices against black lives.

When counter-protestors declare that #AllLivesMatter, they are bringing a different normative context into focus which is meant to neutralise that obligation. The slogan is true; they are not epistemically wrong about all lives mattering, according to prevailing notions of human rights. Reduction to facts and truths does not help us to see what is going on in this public debate. #BlackLivesMatter creates normative entanglement; #AllLivesMatter resists normative entanglement.

In Part II of this series of posts, we will take a deeper look at substantive political debates and how the play between epistemic defences and normative entanglement can help us parse what is being said and what is at stake.


[2] Notess, 2021 available at:

[3] Rebecca Kukla and Mark Norris Lance, ‘Yo!’ and ‘Lo!’: The Pragmatic Topography of the Space of Reasons (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2009).

image: Thomas Faed, A Woman Standing in a Doorway, National Galleries, Scotland (pictured, Creative Commons)