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< Prev   CONTENTS   Next > Difficult Conversations and Discursive Closure

Communicating across paradigms is difficult, yet necessary. When we communicate, tensions emerge between people who embrace one paradigm over the other. Often our fear of the tensions works to silence the discussion. A profile of George Marshall, Cofounder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, COIN, and, a blog about the psychology of climate change denial, shares how Marshall will ask complete strangers what they think about the changing climate (Woodside 2013). His personal passion is to talk to those who disagree that global warming is a serious man-made problem. Woodside quotes Marshall as saying, “My core contention is that climate change is a contested narration that is shaped by social negotiation.. .. In society as a whole—and I think this applies at a micro level in individuals and peer groups and institutions—I think there is a deliberately negotiated silence on climate change.” Marshall promotes bringing up the topic even if you feel uncomfortable:

I think any time you have a conversation with anyone about the weather you should bring climate change into the conversation, not in a hectoring, judgmental, on-your-soapbox way but just drop it in there every single time. 'Weird weather we're having .. .. Yeah well, personally, I believe its climate change and that something weird has been going on. And it's been getting weirder.' Just put it out there.

Often when he raises such issues with strangers, they simply stop talking. But mentioning the issue helps “establish staging points in that void where it is acceptable to talk about it.” One of Marshall's favorite examples involves a man at a dinner party with retired professionals. The man raised the issue of how could they possibly fly so much, and everyone there was completely silent until someone said, “What a delicious spinach tart.” And then they spent the next 10 minutes talking about spinach tart—in obsessive detail. It wasn't just a random thing. A spinach tart was a more comfortable topic to discuss than climate change.

This negotiated silence illustrates discursive closure, a concept developed by communication scholar Stanley Deetz (1992). Discursive closure involves the unobtrusive strategies used by the proponents of a particular Discourse to suppress potential conflict and prevent alternative views from being freely expressed. Strategies are difficult to notice but include disqualification, naturalization, neutralization, topical avoidance, subjectification of experience, meaning denial and plausible deniability, legitimation, and pacification. Disqualification occurs when people are denied access to speaking opportunities because they lack the needed expertise or skills. Naturalization occurs when one view is seen as the way things are while overlooking the social historical processes which created that normative view. For example, in the USA, few people rely on passenger trains to get from city to city; however, that has not always been the case. In the 1950s and 1960s, protesters fought to stop or reroute the interstate construction. Neutralization refers to the process by which value positions are hidden and value-laden activities are treated as value-free. Today, our unconscious reliance on our private automobiles for such trips reinforces our cultural value of autonomy, burdens people with the expense of automobile purchase and maintenance, and results in environmental damage and pollution. Topical avoidance is self-explanatory. Subjectification of experience occurs when someone says something is just a matter of opinion. Meaning denial and plausible deniability occurs when someone makes a statement in a way that allows them to deny it later, depending on the audience response. For example, I might say, “We should shut down Interstate X because it costs the U.S. too much to repair all the crumbling bridges,” believing this assertion is worthy of discussion but wanting the flexibility to say just kidding depending on my audience's reaction. Legitimation invokes higher-order explanatory devices (e.g., corporate goal statements exist to make decisions appear acceptable rather than to guide decisions and actions). Pacification acknowledges the conflict but discounts the issue's significance, its solvability, or the ability of the participants to do anything about it. On the US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration website (2015), I read:

Because of concerns about what highways, dams, and other public works projects were doing to the environment, the Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969.. .. NEPA was a major turning point for the Interstate highway program. It gave us a framework for studying proposed projects—for changing them where needed and making sure the public has an opportunity to comment. Thanks to NEPA, we have learned a lot about how to build highways, including Interstates, that protects the environment or make it better. We still face controversies because it is sometimes difficult to improve our transportation network without affecting the environment. But overall, the highways being built today are much better suited to the Nation's needs than would otherwise have been the case.

This quote illustrates legitimation (i.e., NEPA) and pacification. The discursive closure concept and the eight strategies can be applied to the conversations occurring between people who differ in whether or not they embrace the DSP or the NEP. Key Point: Recognizing these strategies is the first step to managing the communication challenge being imposed (e.g., talk about climate change rather than the spinach tart).

Although standardization and quantification are important to many sustainability initiatives, a reliance on predefined matrices and indices suggests that sustainability is to be performed, not explored, discussed, and created through interaction (Christensen et al. 2015). Standardization and quantification act as a form of discursive closure. “When discussion is thwarted, a particular view of reality is maintained at the expense of equally plausible ones” (Deetz 1992, p. 188). Micropractices stabilize social relations, suppress creative solutions, and limit engagement in solving sustainability problems. Christensen et al. (2015) offer a way to challenge discursive closure which they call a license to critique. This approach draws on stakeholders' experiences, ideas, and enactments and encourages them to detect and report discrepancies between organizational talk and action. Communication about sustainability focuses on formulating definitions, challenging the status quo, articulating ideals, laying down principles, contesting standards, publicizing visions, and putting forward plans. Good communication involves allowing and cultivating a variety of perspectives to ensure that established positions are continuously challenged. Creative solutions and commitment among involved parties emerge and continuously evolve through input and challenge. Given the range of paradigms and discourses discussed in the next section, clashing views over sustainability exist within many organizations.

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