Deliberative democratic theory emphasizes the need for a deliberating public in order to secure a strong democracy. In this vein, theorists seek to explore and establish methods of promoting deliberation. A significant amount of attention has been paid to understanding what institutional procedures and processes would be required in order for public deliberation to most successfully occur. For this paper, I seek to offer a suggestion in this regard. I suggest that deliberative democratic theory ought to further explore the issue of systemic silencing. Deliberation requires listening to and understanding fellow deliberators. Thus far, the ways in which people fail to listen to and understand each other have not been thoroughly explored. I respond to the dearth of theoretical work on this issue by suggesting that an exploration of how speech is silenced could potentially offer significant insights into how to promote deliberation. I begin by considering what it means to communicate and detailing the importance of communication in deliberative democracy. Next, I examine further what it means to listen and understand, as well as the harms failures in communication cause deliberation. I conclude with considering how attention to the issue of silencing, as a failure in communication in which one is either not listened to or not understood, could be beneficial for promoting deliberation.
Deliberative Democratic Theory and Communication
I would like to begin by detailing the importance of communication in deliberative democracy. There is an ontological presupposition subsumed in deliberative democratic theory, namely, that we, human beings, exist as communicative beings. To be a communicative being is to necessarily be dependent upon and inextricably linked with other communicative beings. Hannah Arendt follows Aristotle in distinguishing the central activities of human political existence as action and speech. Human beings are uniquely distinct forms of life because each individual is able to communicate their own individual abstract thought in relation to others who share in a common communicative capacity. Arendt states, “Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness” in that “Through them, men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; they are modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men [sic].” “In acting and speaking,” she states, humans “show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.”
The communicative capacity that allows humans to disclose themselves also gives them their political nature. Human beings are beings who live together and reveal themselves within a web of already existing human material and psychical relations. This is the situation in which we exist. To exist politically is to publicly decide through persuasion, as opposed to violence, what course of action the community ought to take. Speech is a means of making sense of the common situation in which we exist together, and thus the paramount concern of the citizenry ought to be to talk with each other. What is of importance to Arendt is preserving a public space in which human beings, viewing each other as equals, can come together to speak and act. Human beings are a plurality of uniquely distinct beings who necessarily exist together. Communication in the public realm links in understanding individuals who are separated by differences so as to publicly determine how to resolve the community’s problems.
Communication is crucial for a strong democracy. Benjamin Barber defines strong democracy as “politics in the participatory mode where conflict is resolved in the absence of an independent ground through a participatory process of ongoing, proximate self-legislation and the creation of a political community capable of transforming dependent, private individuals into free citizens and partial and private interests into public goods.” Humans, in their plurality, have no independent value as a ground to judge what they ought to do. Politics is the means of deciding what humans ought to do at the level of the community. Communication is necessary for politics; it is active and ongoing. Barber’s hallmarks of an active and ongoing strong democracy, “common deliberation, common decision, and common work,” are all communicative. Within a diverse citizenry where individuals hold diverging perspectives, the link between deliberating individuals is formed through their common political activity, transforming the diverse citizenry into a community. The common political activity is communicative.
Communication is crucial for deliberative democracy, and to communicate requires understanding. Jürgen Habermas offers a discursive procedure for political action that takes seriously this relation between political action and speech. He defines communicative interactions as “when the participants coordinate their plans of action consensually, with the agreement reached at any point being evaluated in terms of the intersubjective recognition of validity claims.” Communicative interactions appeal to validity claims; claims of objective truth, claims of normative rightness, or claims to an individual’s own subjective sincerity. Claims to normative rightness, claims about what the community ought to do, are primarily what politics is concerned with. He distinguishes strategic action from communicative action, defining communicative action as when “one actor seeks rationally to motivate another by relying on the illocutionary binding/bonding effect of the offer contained in his [sic] speech.” This is crucial. What Habermas is gesturing toward is how communicative interactions are dependent upon an illocutionary bond; a bond is created due to an intersubjective understanding between the interlocutors that their intended action is to rationally motivate each other, not strategically manipulate each other.
Habermas is asserting that communicative action has the intention of rationally motivating one’s interlocutors, as opposed to manipulating them for one’s own interests, and understanding this intent creates a bond between the interlocutors. Thus, Habermas recognizes the interrelationality of communicative political action; it is cooperative and intersubjective where individuals are linked through understanding. However, I suggest that this understanding is not merely the understanding that one’s intention is communicative, as opposed to strategic. Implicit in understanding that one’s intention is communicative is also an appeal to understanding the situated position, the speaker’s socio-political and psychical position, that is being communicated. It is to understand the speaker’s validity claims as well as the socio-political and psychical position of the speaker making these claims.
One is both an individual and a member of the community. Each member is equally afforded the right to communicate, to offer validity claims. However, Habermas asserts that one’s validity claims must be universalizable, which leads to the sole principle for a discursive process; “Only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.” It is the verb “affected” in this principle that implies understanding; it implies understanding the position of others. One must understand another’s socio-political and psychical position in order to understand if and how the person will be affected by a particular decision.
Such understanding is also implied in the procedural rules entailed in this principle for the discursive process: 1) “Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse,” 2) “Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever,” 3) “Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse,” 4) “Everyone is allowed to express [their] attitudes, desires, and needs,” 5) “No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising [their] rights as” noted in 1-4. People must be equally allowed to speak and act in this process. This is robust conception of freedom of speech where speaking is a disclosure by one member of the community of their situated position, linked with the listening and understanding of other members of the community.
Habermas and Arendt align on this point. Appeals to the community must be based on what is common, what is universalizable. Arendt states, “This sensus communis is what judgment appeals to in everyone, and it is this possible appeal that gives judgments their special validity.” In appealing to the community’s common sense, one is communicating one’s own situated position, a situation that is inextricably embedded in the community, after reflecting on and taking into account all others’ situated positions. This is Arendt’s “enlarged mentality,” in which one simultaneously and impartially holds one’s own perspective in mind along with a proliferation of other perspectives. Habermas would agree with Arendt on this point, but would add that such enlarged mentality requires participating in “everyday communication,” which “makes possible a kind of understanding that is based on claims to validity.” Arendt continues, “The it-pleases-or-displeases-me, which as a feeling seems so utterly private and noncommunicative, is actually rooted in this community sense and is therefore open to communication once it has been transformed by reflection, which takes all others and their feelings into account.” Decisions about what the community ought to do are valid only under conditions of communication in which the individual’s disclosure is linked with listening and understanding. That is, when members of the community understand each other’s situated positions and form a common sense.
Political Harms due to Failures in Listening and Understanding
In the previous section, I explored the importance of communication in deliberative democratic theory. It is through communication that an enlarged mentality and a common sense is formed. It is through communication that one appeals to others via validity claims. It is through communication that validity claims are binding; binding the individual with the community and justifying what ought to be done. Communication is not an act performed in isolation. Communication is a public and political act that secures a strong democracy. To communicate is to be both expressive and receptive; to speak and to listen. Communication is an active interrelation. Arendt’s conception of how speech and action allows one to reveal who they are within the public realm points to significant harms to both individuals and the community due to failures in communication. Failures of communication are failures in listening and understanding those with whom we share in community. One such harm is the harm of a loss of reality.
The assurance of reality, of the world and of who we are, can only be obtained through our communication with “others who see what we see and hear what we hear.” The unique distinctness of human beings proliferates a multiplicity of perspectives. This multiplicity of perspectives is necessary for the assurance of reality. The significance of a multiplicity of perspectives is in how diversity is required in order to be assured of what is fundamental; how diversity is required in order for individual existences to converge in a shared reality. Arendt states, “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.” Enlarged mentality requires listening to and understanding others’ perspectives, which requires understanding their situated positions. With this enlarged mentality, one can appeal to the common sense of the community. Without listening and understanding, humans cannot converge on what is common, nor can they converge on what is real.
Arendt here is hinting at the importance of listening and understanding through explicating the harms to individuals and the community when failures of listening and understanding arise. Arendt links the disclosure of the individual with the witnessing of the disclosure by others. Where individuals either become completely atomized in isolation or homogenously uniform, “they have been deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them.” The harm to the community is the end of the common world that grounds reality, where the community “is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.” What I have in mind here is how knowledge becomes stunted when one’s discursive community is too narrow. One fails to gain insight into the complexities of the socio-political world when one is locked in either their own head or an echo chamber. In both cases, the same perspective is regurgitated over and over again, in ever more distorted forms. One is unable to discern reality.
This narrowing of perspective can also occur in failures of communication. In failures of communication, when the individual is not listened to or understood, the disclosure of the individual either becomes halted or stunted. Halted when one is unable to reveal oneself because no one is listening, or stunted when the disclosure of oneself is not understood. When the individual’s disclosure is halted or stunted, the community is harmed because it is deprived of the individual’s perspective. Without the proliferation of perspectives, a proliferation that requires listening and understanding, the community becomes unable to be assured of reality; the community cannot converge on what is common.
Barber hints in a similar way at the importance of listening and understanding. Barber’s conception of strong democracy holds civility as a core virtue of democratic politics, conceiving of civility as reciprocal empathy and mutual respect. He states, “Civility is rooted in the idea that consciousness is a socially conditioned intelligence that takes into account the reality of other consciousnesses operating in a shared world.” Civil consciousness takes into account the multiplicity of diverse perspectives of others with whom one exists. There is an interrelation in reciprocity and mutuality – the communicative exchange goes both ways. At the same time, to empathize is to understand, while to respect is to listen. When there is a failure to listen and understand, civility breaks down, and when civility breaks down, democracy breaks down.
McAfee’s “integrative model” of democratic deliberation exemplifies many of these themes, describing how democratic deliberation expands one’s mentality so that one is able to consider how decisions affect the entire community. Democratic deliberation is a form of “community making,” in which deliberators choose how to politically create their community with the understanding that they are unable to “separate political ends from the fact that they are living with other people who are also affected by these policy choices.” McAfee states, “actual public deliberations usually spend a great deal of time developing a public picture of what a problem is and how it affects those in the room and others throughout the political community. As deliberators develop a public understanding of the nature and the many aspects of the problem at hand, they also begin to see themselves as a public.”
What McAfee is describing here is a process of listening and understanding. Deliberation requires that the interlocutors develop an understanding of the multiplicity of perspectives that individuals hold given their distinctly unique situated positions. In choosing and making together, in ongoing political action, the individuals become linked as a public. McAfee continues, “This view distinguishes itself by aiming for integration of multiple, heterogeneous views. […] Because each starts out with a limited picture of how a policy under consideration might affect others, participants deliberate in order to learn.” The process of listening and understanding links individuals into a public through learning and choice. Individuals must listen and understand in order to learn and choose. The ongoing learning and choosing, ongoing political action, is what links individuals into a public, a community.
What it means to “understand” another perspective is not entirely clear in democratic deliberative theory. McAfee’s integrative model aligns with Iris Marion Young’s definition of “understanding.” Young defines it as meaning that “there has been successful expression of experience and perspective, so that other social positions learn, and part of what they understand is that there remains more behind that experience and perspective that transcends their own subjectivity.” Understanding is gaining insight into one’s interlocutors’ perspectives so that one recognizes the partiality of one’s perspective. Such understanding requires one to appeal during deliberation to public values as opposed to self-interest as well as adds to the formation of social knowledge. Failures of listening and understanding, following McAfee and Young, risk disintegrating the public, de-linking individuals, through a stultification of social knowledge formation which in turn truncates the availability of choices to individuals for how to collaboratively make their community.
Systemic Silencing and the Failure of Illocutionary Uptake
In the previous section, I explored the consequences to the democratic deliberative process due to communication failures, failures in listening and understanding. Democratic deliberation requires inclusivity, but communication failures perpetuate exclusivity. Young directs our attention to how deliberative processes can be exclusionary if they are unable to foster a communicative space of listening that aims for understanding. It is not only socio-economic and political inequalities that “prevent people from being equal speakers,” but also “an internalized sense of the right one has to speak or not to speak, and from the devaluation of some people’s style of speech and the elevation of others.” What Young is describing is systemic silencing.
From the perspective of systemic silencing, Young points out that it is largely assumed in deliberative democratic literature that so long as socio-economic and political inequalities are bracketed, that “people’s ways of speaking and understanding will be the same,” which fails to take into account that people are situated in different cultural and social positions. This is a very trenchant critique of Habermas’s position in that he fails to account for how individuals are differentially situated and how existing societal norms are carried over into the deliberative process. Norms of speaking that privilege types of speech that are assertive, articulate, unemotional, formal and general are correlated with socio-economic and political privileges. Young is directing our attention to the importance of recognizing how interlocutors in the deliberative process can be silenced. People are silenced due to a restriction on their speech. This restriction can be self-imposed due to an internalization of society’s norms or it can be other-imposed due to a devaluation of the speaker’s capabilities based on society’s norms.
Systemic silencing is inimical to the realization of equality, an integral requirement for deliberation. All interlocutors must be fully recognized as equal. Following Young, Edana Beauvais argues deliberation requires two forms of equality: universal (or moral) equality and equity. Universal equality is recognizing that humans all share the same moral worth, while equity entails recognizing that our interlocutors are differentially situated based on socio-political and psychical differences. Equity entails recognizing that individuals can be disempowered and marginalized in the deliberative process due to persistent and unresolved structural and systemic inequities, even if universal equality is recognized. Conceiving of the negation of these concepts, both types of inequalities create exclusions in the deliberative process when individuals’ contributions are either not fully considered or flat out ignored because either individuals are considered as morally inferior or their differentially situated position is not considered.
Habermas hints at systemic silencing when he discusses systematically distorted communication. He recognizes how we always bring our own perspectives into the deliberation, we are never neutral observers. Due to this, we are liable to stumble into failures to achieve understanding, what he identifies as “pseudo-communication, where the participants do not recognize any communication disturbances.” Pseudo-communication leads to “a system of reciprocal misunderstandings which, due to the false assumption of consensus, are not recognized as such.” Habermas works through this problem with Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. He directs his attention to how misunderstandings occur due to a desymbolization of meaning causing a dissonance between the individual’s meaning and the public intersubjectively recognized meaning. Alan Gross points out for Habermas that this desymbolization causes the individual to deceive themselves about their communicative intent; they are acting strategically but conceiving of themselves as aiming for mutual understanding. They are acting ideologically. Ideologies are the socio-political “networks of belief that ground self-deception and impede ameliorative change.” Habermas states ideologies are “illusions that are outfitted with the power of common convictions,” and are “subjectively free from constraint” but are nonetheless “illusionary.” Gross points out that it is structural inequalities that create ideologies and ideologies that create systematically distorted communication.
Ideology sets the conditions for another form of systemic silencing. Following Antonio Gramsci, Young is concerned with how participants in a deliberative process perpetuate and justify structural inequalities due to the influence of ideologies that are produced by the very same structural inequalities. Referring to Habermas, Young states that the obscured pervasiveness of systematically distorted communication makes “it difficult to think critically about aspects of [interlocutors’] social relations or alternative possibilities of institutionalization and action.” Ideology is hegemonic when it becomes systemically embedded throughout society, and thus becomes naturalized to the extent that people uncritically think and behave according to its dictates.
Systemic silencing occurs, in this sense, due to the inability of interlocutors to conceptualize, to understand, other perspectives. Perspectives that counter the hegemonic ideology are beyond the conceptual purview of other interlocutors. This inability to conceptualize other perspectives results in a restriction on what is conceived of as social problems, as well as choices for solutions to those problems. As a way to counter this sort of system silencing, Young offers James Bohman’s deliberative theory as a way to test whether ideology has seized the deliberative process. Bohman argues that legitimacy of the process depends on the degree to which interlocutors are able to initiate which problems are to be discussed. I emphatically agree, but I want to add to the discussion by addressing another aspect of the issue. Even if interlocutors are able to initiate which problems are to be discussed, there still remains the issue of the inability of other interlocutors to understand the perspectives that are communicated.
Initiation may afford marginalized interlocutors a space to be listened to, but not necessarily understood. The issue, I suggest, is uptake. Ideology creates conditions that complicate uptake. Some perspectives receive uptake, while others do not. Rea Langton’s work in useful here. Langton follows J.L. Austin’s speech act theory that focuses on speech as action, specifically illocutionary action. Speech is action that occurs within a context, within a situation. It is not action in isolation. Austin distinguishes between locutionary acts that are simply the utterance of sentences with a particular meaning, perlocutionary acts that are the affects of the utterance on hearers, and illocutionary acts that are the intentions of the speaker in uttering the sentence. Langton’s concern is with how illocutionary acts are silenced. I am suggesting that democratic deliberative theorists follow her lead. The interlocutor may be able to take part in the deliberation, uttering a sentence with a particular meaning, but other interlocutors may fail in understanding the intention of the utterance. In doing so, the speaker is silenced.
Langton points out how the powerful are able to do more with their speech, for example, silence the speech of others. She argues there are several ways in which the powerful are able to silence the speech of others. They may restrict the powerless from speaking at all, from perlocutionary acts. They may, however, let the powerless speak; “Let them say whatever they like to whomever they like, but stop that speech from counting as an action […] as the action it was intended to be.” Speech acts occur within situations, within contexts that create conditions for their success or failure. In performing a particular speech act, one is intending to do something; motivate, critique, argue, protest. In order for one’s speech act to do what one is intending, “The speaker will also need to secure ‘uptake’: that is to say, the hearer must recognize that an illocution of a certain kind is being performed.”
Langton’s work is compatible with Young’s concerns with ideology and Beauvais’s work on inequality. Speech acts can subordinate by ranking individuals as morally inferior, thereby legitimating structural inequalities, and depriving individuals of the ability to act. In deliberative processes, one’s presentation of a problem and proposed solution to the problem can be silenced if others fail to understand the speaker’s intent. The speaker may be giving reasons for their position. They may be offering a counter example to a hegemonic ideology by explicating a personal story that reflects their perspective, but their interlocutors fail to understand that they are giving a counter example. This misunderstanding results in a failure to understand the speaker’s perspective. Langton offers Donald Davidson’s example of a stage actor in the middle of scene where he is supposed to be responding to an imagined fire, but an actual fire breaks out. The actor yells, “FIRE!” trying to warn the audience of the danger, but the audience fails to understand the actor’s intent is to warn them and not play a part. The actor has been silenced and the “act of warning has been made unspeakable for him.”
Ideology can set the situation and context for the failure of speech acts. Subordination due to structural inequalities can become hegemonic. In such contexts, there can occur failures of illocutionary uptake that result in failures of understanding the speakers’ perspectives. The ideology itself creates the situation and context for both the speaker’s validity claims and the failure of uptake. The speaker’s perspective is incomprehensible despite the speaker performing the appropriate locutionary act with the appropriate intention. Acts of motivating, critiquing, arguing, and protesting have been made unspeakable by interlocutors who have been ideologically constricted by structural inequalities. As Ishani Maitra argues, silencing is a “distinctly speech-related wrong” in that it deprives an actor of the benefits of speech, e.g. motivating, critiquing, arguing, and protesting, due to ideological beliefs about the actor.
Liberal theorists have dismissed systemic silencing, claiming that the right to free speech does not entail that others actually understand what one is saying. This is understandable given they are operating under conceptions of negative liberty where those whom seek to restrict speech bear the burden of proof for why restriction is necessary. Within liberal theory, speech is individualistic. Speaking does not need to be communicative, it can occur in isolation; “you do not need an audience to make meaningful sounds.” Primacy is given to having no restrictions on one’s ability to speak. There is no corresponding requirement for others to listen to and understand what one is saying. But, as I hope to have conveyed in the first and second sections of this paper, this is not the case with deliberative democratic theory. Deliberative democracy requires listening to and understanding each other’s perspectives.
My aim in this paper was to offer a suggestion to deliberative democratic theorists, using tenants that these theorists hold. My suggestion is that more work ought to be done to understand systemic silencing, because the success of deliberative democracy hinges on interlocutors’ listening to and understanding each other. I have further suggested that Rae Langton’s, and Jennifer Hornsby following Langton, work on systemic silencing could prove beneficial in this regard. Systemic silencing coheres with the work of many thinkers who have promoted deliberative democracy, as well as contributes a different perspective to the discussion. In closing, I would like to share a final quote from Hornsby and Langton that I think exemplifies this assertion:
There is a distinctively human capacity that one has as a member of a speech community: one is able to do things with words (and take others to do them) when others are able to take one to do them (and to do them themselves). Possession of this capacity (which is to participate in illocution) – not just of the ability to produce intelligible sounds and marks (which is to participate in locution) – is necessary for any individual to flourish as a knowledgeable being, and for the spread of knowledge across populations and generations of individuals. It is a capacity that equips human beings with a nonviolent means for reaching decisions, whether on individual or collective action. And that no doubt explains why free speech should so often have been thought not merely to assist in the spread of truth but also to be partially constitutive of democratic arrangements.
 Michael Morrell, “Listening and Deliberation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 237-50
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 24-25
 Arendt, p. 176
 Ibid., p. 179
 Ibid., pp. 183-84
 Ibid., p. 26
 Ibid., p. 27
 Benjamin R. Barber, Strong Democracy (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2004), p. 132
 Ibid., p. 133
 Ibid., p. 244
 Jürgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. 58
 Ibid., p. 66; 103
 Ibid., p. 89
 Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 72
 Ibid., pp. 42-44
 Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, pp. 19; 27
 Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, p. 72
 Ibid., p. 50
 Ibid., p. 57
 Ibid., p. 58
 Barber, p. 223
 Nöelle McAfee, “Three Models of Democratic Deliberation,” in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy vol. 18, no. 1 (2004), p. 53
 Ibid., p. 53
 Iris Marion Young, “Communication and the Other: Beyond Deliberative Democracy,” in Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 128
 Ibid., p. 128
 Ibid., p. 122
 Ibid., pp. 122-23
 Ibid., p. 124
 Beauvais, “Deliberation and Equality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 146
 Ibid., p. 147
 Ibid., p. 148
 Habermas, “On Systematically Distorted Communication,” in Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy and the Social Sciences vol. 13, no. 1 (1970), p. 206
 Ibid., pp. 208-10
 Alan G. Gross, “Systematically Distorted Communication: An Impediment to Social and Political Change,” in Informal Logic vol. 30, no. 4 (2010), p. 338
 Ibid., p. 340
 Jürgen Habermas, “Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power,” in Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994), p. 225
 Gross, p. 341
 Iris Marion Young, “Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy,” in Philosophy of Education (2001), p. 51
 Ibid., p. 52
 Rae Langton, “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts,” in Philosophy & Public Affairs vol. 22, no. 4 (1993), p. 295
 Langton, pp. 295-96
 Ibid., p. 299
 Ibid., p. 301
 Ibid., p. 303
 Ishani Maitra, “Silencing Speech,” in Canadian Journal of Philosophy vol. 39, no. 2 (2009), p. 333
 Langton, p. 316
 Ibid., p. 317
 Maitra, pp. 331-35
 Jennifer Hornsby and Rae Langton, “Free Speech and Illocution,” in Legal Theory vol. 4 (1998), pp. 35-36
 Ibid., p. 35
 Ibid., p. 32
 Ibid., p. 37