Failed Acts of Speech, a Challenge for Democracy
“Each electoral cycle is a new opportunity to identify failed acts of speech, both inter- and intra-generational, and communication can have deep connotations”, believe a number of Romanian academics, journalists and experts from various NGOs and think-tanks, gathered recently at the Dignitas Foundation in Bucharest to analyse the latest global and local events. Juxtapositions are always made in the Romanian public space, which is very well informed and connected to the West, through the extensive international cooperation in both public and private sectors, and through the Romanians studying in Western Universities, who then return with a more critical eye on society.
This kind of discourse analysis proves extremely useful for Western analysts when they try to understand trouble within their own societies that may be attributed to failures in communication, because we live very much in discursive realities. Romania is typical of a country that appears to be less than it actually is and whose worth is underestimated simply because of poor communication. Romania swiftly leaped from Communism to wild capitalism, skipped some stages in developing institutions and systems, experienced some manifestations of failed privatization, failed democratization, baffled expectations, failed institutional building, failed leadership, and yet it has recorded progress in some areas, beyond the apparently chaotic and aggressive general discourse. It counts as a reliable strategic NATO partner, it has expertise in sectors such as oil refinery, automotive industry and IT, and it registers one of the highest economic growth rates across the EU.
Razvan Orășanu, former economist and journalist, and director of the Institute for Popular Studies, sees a “totally disintegrated society, with several layers of generations that can hardly share the same views”, simply because they lived in dramatically different historical times: ”their grandparents lived during the war and Communism and are characterized by a strong dedication to work; their parents lived in Communism and they were made to imagine that they were building a perfect society; we, their children, are the last generation that grew up with printed books; generation X is digital and cannot employ their attention for too long; generation Z grew up with the iphone, understands only Social Media, cannot focus for more than 5 minutes and are not patient enough to watch TV”. “Discrepancies are huge”, thinks Orășanu.
Radu Alexandru, an academic, sees “no communication problem between generations” but rather “a failed attempt to modernize thinking and society” and he recalls Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock which described very well what we are experiencing now.
“The politically correct language” is seen as the main problem by Bogdan Lepădatu, English language expert and translator, who suggests that “the millennials introduced this concept which now leads to a standard language deprived of real meaning and inefficient in communication”.
Marina Luiza Cristea, director of communication at Dignitas Foundation and formerly a teacher for many years, thinks that “the problem lies not with the youth, but with the previous generation who should find ways to communicate with their successors. There is no war between generations. On the contrary, we lack tolerance and we must acknowledge that! In addition, we must educate ourselves and our children to choose wisely and to manage the informational resources efficiently. What’s wrong is the way we perform information management”.
“The contents of communication are what matters most. Communication is becoming superficial, without principles and values, because ignorant people are actually wished for, to serve as a mass lacking agency for manoeuvring by interested parties”, believes Sever Avram from the House of Europe Foundation, former journalist and expert in public policies.
Former librarian with the Romanian National Library, Florentin Streche finds an explanation of the superficial society in the “dissipated education, once the capitalist epoch started. Attention has moved from the centre to the periphery and the teacher lost credibility and the privileged position of truth-teller”. In addition, “we have maximal communication but failed speech acts! Simply because, instead of living in our own projection, we live in the others’ projection and our under-consciousness looks for something appropriate for our identity”.
Mădălina Andrei, young philosopher recently returned from Paris where she completed her Bachelor studies, believes that “the idea of form without content is exaggerated” (i.e. interwar scholar Nicolae Iorga’s assertion that Romania was copying Western institutions while hollowing them out because of cultural differences, paralleled by Trubetzkoy’s assertion of the same for Czarist and Communist Russia). Interestingly, unlike people who did not study or travel abroad too much, she does not see so many problems of any kind after the years spent outside of her homeland, including communication, and she has a propensity to elicit her country’s strong points in relation to other so called “more advanced” nations. She finds the cause of “communication problem” in the gap between reason and emotions, “because reason entertains doubts…”.
Placing the discourse of various social groups under scrutiny would provide a useful resource for those who want to understand institutional and social constructs, public policies, strategies, and relations in today’s complex societies. The power of speech should not be underestimated. Foucault explains that discourses are “practices that systematically shape the objects of which they speak” while Austin describes the “failed speech acts” through their failure to be performative and to achieve something, to bring about what they say.
Failed speech acts increasingly seem to become a characteristic and a challenge for democracy on both sides of the Atlantic. Inevitably, people in higher social strata, generically endowed with higher levels of education and critical thinking, become confused and panic when faced with this phenomenon which negates their perceived outsized role in steering society.