Design thought for the day

A paradox of modernism (in architecture): The very emphasis on function as dogmatically determining form — functionality being what every formal element of the building is supposed to express — places a tremendous burden on the details: exact proportions, materials, finishes, etc. The resulting register is maximally aesthetic. This is how 2 buildings in, say, the International Style can be almost identical, in terms of the big stuff (size shape technique blah blah blah), yet fall on either side of the divide between brilliant and crap. It’s the small stuff that decides. Modernism is decorative.

(Alternative blog post title: On walking up to SFU in mild rain I am struck by the difference between the Madge Hogarth residence, which is really quite a satisfying example of austere 60s Brutalism, and the adjacent West Mall Centre, which is a witless 80s imitation of the earlier building, adding curves and nautical windows and a jaunty railing.)

Seven kinds of silencing

As somebody interested in language, dialogue, rhetoric, and so on, I’ve always been fascinated, as well as appalled, by strategies of silencing. That’s when one party to a conversation tries to get a decisive advantage over another by claiming to occupy a position outside the conversation itself, but framing and controlling it. The silencer tries to assert his or her alignment with some dominant “rule,” and to claim that the silencee has broken it and should therefore shut up. Of course, there are no rules for conversation, which is why silencing is always a dishonest, bad-faith, and cowardly attempt to avoid the challenge of seeking agreement about a subject-matter — that is, trying to understand it. Unfortunately, we appear to be entering a Golden Age of silencing, so I thought it might it be helpful to review some of its typical strategies. We can’t prevent people from trying these, but we can prevent them from succeeding, by recognizing their BS and calling them on it.

When you are putting your point of view to a silencer, he or she will try to shut you down by saying things like these (the list is not exhaustive, or in any particular order):

(1) “Your view is against the rules.” This is classic, as it were generic, silencing.

(2) “This isn’t the right time for your view.” A variation on the classic. 

(3) “Your view is not against the rules, but the way you’re putting it is.” This one I’ve noticed recently. It’s just another variation on (1). Many sub-variations, from specification of that “way.”

(4) “All of this has already been decided.” In-with-the-in-crowd silencing.

(5) “Everybody already knows about this.” Ditto.

(6) “Chill out!” Less chill than it sounds.

(7) “Your view is too dangerous!” This is a new one too, I think. It’s when the silencer tries to project a moral panic around the whole conversation, like a kid pulling the fire alarm to get out of an exam. Sadly, s/he probably does that because s/he experiences this panic internally every time s/he comes to the table of dialogue. And perhaps that holds for silencers in general. Although some of them, I suspect, are just authoritarian. 

How should we respond to silencers? Sadly, I think it depends on the strategy they’re using, the context, and many other factors. In other words, it ain’t easy. Silencing is a crime against conversation. If crime didn’t pay, at least in the short term, there wouldn’t be criminals.

But the first step, I’m pretty sure, is to see what’s happening and say: stop it.