As students we have the privilege of holding ourselves accountable. We define our success not only by the grades and degrees we receive, but at a deeper level in our being. How we assess our progress is a discourse of our own making, with conclusions that only we can truly affirm. By granting ourselves kudos we elaborate a muchness that enables us to proceed with confidence; the courage of our conviction that our studies matter is key to our motivation. Psychologically, this individual sense of reality finds parallels wherever beliefs involve facts as well as feelings. Because hey, when we’re sure we’re sure in our gut as well as in our brain.
If we feel misunderstood by others who question why we prioritize our studies, we can take solace in the fact that all sorts of public issues also lead people to project personal beliefs onto others, and thereby become frustrated when disagreements ensue. Ego and sentiment underlie much of what is presented as factual; priorities and methods lead some facts (like our desire for good grades) to be evaluated highly while others (say, a favourite hobby with friends) are left by the wayside.
Sometimes a fistful of facts does not an absolution from ambiguity make; this is partly because our identities hold fast to our convictions as a toddler does to a comfort blanket. Our private discourse frames and defines the academic portion of our identity and, as Ernesto Laclau and Chantale Mouffe describe, this discursive process reflects larger societal realities whereby discourses claim hegemony over reality even as relevant aspects of life remain on the outside. Every topic has its own version of what matters most. “Discourses are ‘enclosed’ totalities – hence Laclau and Mouffe’s use of the term ‘closure’ when speaking of discourse. In their estimation, discourses exclude what they are not from penetrating into the public discourse. That is to say, as an enclosed totality, discourse inhibits the very possibility of changing its own formation. Simply put (or perhaps simplistically?), through discourse various events can be said to have meaning, and this meaning furthermore is given a closure and cannot be rearticulated” (online). In other words, where discourses are concerned, facts that don’t fit mean zip! Many a useful tibit has been ignored, however, by deploying the phrase “just the facts, Ma’am”.
Consider how assorted conspiracy theories cherry pick facts and evidence, often much of it part of the extensive scientific canon of research on a given topic, and privilege data that fits over that which they feel they can disavow or distrust. Discourse theory reminds us that we all do this, in our egos, whenever we privilege one reality over another. When we slog through a tough afternoon of studying and then reward ourselves with a couple of days of doing zipola in the schoolwork department we’re holding ourself up to our private discourse of accountability. Other, exceedingly ambitious people, might to us seem a bit dotty or neurotic with how they appear perpetually displeased with their progress. Yet, that’s their reality and their discourse. Elsewhere, if we tell a young friend whose behaviour seems immature that their twenty-one-year-old is showing, we are demonstrating the limits of our discourse. Indeed, to truly understand everyone and everything would require a discourse so grand that nothing could be known—everything would simply be what it is, without us having any specific remarks. Just as we all judge others according to our private metrics, perhaps commenting on a person’s youth as an explanation for their indolence but not referring to their gender or ethnicity, each public issue involves adhering to competing discourses that often appear incommensurate with one another.
Under our beliefs lies, as always, our ego. We pick discourses that match our minds even though some have more factual support than others. Conformists trust experts intuitively just as contrarians, like Socrates, can be accused of perpetually seeking to make the weaker argument the stronger. Very few people revel in thinking themselves evil, selfish, or nasty—our egos are invested in a positive, at times even heroic, self-image. So, when a person attributes nefarious intentions to authority figures, perhaps even believing that a cabal of ruling class figures are plotting to enslave the world, there’s no debating them off of their precipice because they’ve asserted their certainty at an emotional as well as factual level. Discourse theory shows how each way of seeing the world functions to uphold certain values and methods at the expense of including others. What Laclau and Mouffe provide us with is a reminder that even if all available facts are known on a topic, discourses will each sort and organize them according to preordained ideological suppositions. And, if you’ll pardon the medical terminology, every suppository is about inducing something to come out more than the fact of what’s puts in.