ethos and ethics

Bob King (
Sat, 19 Oct 1996 17:31:01 -0400

Hello to anyone still following this line. I wrote the following (sorry,
long winded) in response to various messages about ethos and the ethics
of writing online.

First of all, I figure "differences of opinion" are a given. "Ethos" as I
understand it concerns the unique and individual flavor or voice-print of
each person. Ethics, for me, enters the picture whenever and wherever
more than one person is involved. If it weren't for ethos, ethics would
be unnecessary -- we'd all think alike. We ain't alike, but we do live
together as social critters, so ethics takes up where differences of
opinion leave off -- which is to say, almost immediately, at the end of
our noses, etc.

Link to theory: In general my perception has been that many of the active
voices on this list think postmodernism = the first half of the above, the
"differences" only, and either trip out on that (the Vegas group) or
bemoan it (the "can't talk to a postmodernist" group) -- and then turn
around and wrongly, I think, equate the second part of the above
framework, the ethics part, with an attempt to reinscribe a "master
narrative." In other words (partly responding to Marcy here), for me the
micro-ethical present here on this list of course reflects the times in
which we live, for better or worse. How could it not?

Yes it bothers me that there are instances of people behaving badly, in my
estimation, in terms of the care exercised in language. But it also
bothers me that that a group such as this spends most of it's time during
a supposed discussion of postmodernism attacking it (actually, attacking a
single person's use of pomo language) as if it were a villain, or
defending it, rather than actually trying to understand it or come up with
something new to say.

Someone please help me with this, but I have the impression that there are
virtually no theories being constructed. Again, the misunderstanding I
think I see writ large and repeated is that postmodernism =
deconstruction and endless deferral of meaning. Yes, it does mean that.
But it also mean construction, and that includes construction of ethical
relations and frameworks. My impression is that I have constructed and
presented an original theory (an original assembly of parts, and some
original thinking) of postmodernism and the response I've gotten has been
to ignore or try to dissemble it without presenting any arguments -- as if
it would be uncool to present an alternate theory because that would be
logocentric or something! Maybe I'm just being tiresome. That I could
accept. I wouldn't even be saying this if it weren't for the fact that I
see the issue of ethos as having grown out of the issue of postmodernism.

Anyway, I think micro-behavior *is* connected to
theoretical (mis)understanding, I think there is ample evidence in this
particular text/thread which attests to that. The people most disturbed
by the lack of meaning in our era seem most inclined to wage only negative
attacks on meaning, as if to substantiate their position that meaning is
impossible. Again, if I'm being tiresome, reciting what you all already
know, please someone tell me straight. I'll be very willing, grateful
even, to stand corrected.

Second, in partial response to Beth, I figure conversation is about more
than just exchanging opinions. Even a smidge of social constructivism
implies that we're making meaning together when we converse in any medium,
and stakes are always present, some higher than others, but all
significant, because we are critters who are intensely mediated by
language and by human interaction. Throw in technological mediation, also
an inherent feature of human ontology, and presto you have all three of
the "basics" of human beings present and active in online writing. If we
were just cataloging opinions, Eric could set up a form or table on his
website and we could fill in the blanks. It's clearly more complex than
that, for me. If for most people on this list, it's a matter of just
putting a collection of opinions out there, please someone tell me that,
too, so I can go elsewhere and make some theories and practices with
somewhat more commitment.

Third, ethics enters exactly at the point where there is not enough space
to go around, when decisions have to be made, so I disagree with Eric on
this one (a first, I think). To tie this "space" strand together with
the "opinion" strand, if someone is holding a gun to my head or otherwise
behaving irresponsibly, this is not a matter of difference of opinion, nor
is it a matter that a community of any sort can just sort of say that "it
takes all kinds." It's a matter of ethics and community. The people who
watch a woman being gang raped on a pool table, the people who watch while
populations are obliterated, are not acting ethically. When it's one's
own body or one's own bodily indices (emotions, children) involved,
this is very clear. If some people are joking in a hostile way, and others
join in "lightly" (i.e., with sarcasm, with attempts to ignore what's
going on or otherwise distract the patrons of the pool hall) -- doesn't
that sound sort of like passive participation? I've been around Rhetnet
long enough now to see the humor cycle more than once, and at very least
it's interesting when and where it gets inserted (i.e., usually where
things might get personal, spiritual, or otherwise involve
"too serious" ethical deliberation or discussion -- which is exactly
Paul's observation about rhetoricians ignoring ethos).

Albert, re: your study of "play" -- I hope you'll elaborate yourself,
particularly since you study this topic. You mentioned the "light" side
in your last post, but not the "dark" side of the recent humor. I'd like
to hear your perceptions of both sides.

As for me, my ideas are pretty simple. I think fun isn't fun when it's
at another's expense. That's pretty basic playground stuff, in my book.

It also constitutes, for me, a problem whenever "play" is being
introduced to avoid entering into ethical deliberation, or
to substitute for it.

Beth wrote:

> I might prefer the spin, in most cases, to say that the humor is not
> an ethical lapse, but an ethical attempt to keep things from getting so
> heavy and serious that we are likely to risk of feelings of friendship
> and comraderie for the sake of an argument over what are really just
> differences in opinion.

The topic of how to deal with potential conflict is a comlex topic,
involving gender styles of communication and many other things (my mom
would get up from the table and work in the kitchen if anything like an
argument was brewing). One note: again given that Paul was saying
something to the effect that rhetoricians have neglected the topic of
ethos. No wonder, how will we talk about ethos if we're laughing or
writing off, or avoiding, the underpinnings of ethos -- the personal and
spiritual differences, and bodily indexed emotional bases, which in turn
underwrite ethics?

I imagine Beth and many others might could just say that listservs, as
public spaces, are inappropriate places to talk about personal, spiritual,
emotional/body matters. On the surface this sounds reasonable enough, but
in the deeper nest there's trouble in this, too, because what it
*literally* means is there is no ethos (hence no ethics) in public life!
We busy ourselves constructing a world without ethos and ethics, and then
wonder why these qualities are missing in our era, in public life, and too
often in private life as well. Voting for an ethic of care in listserv
interversities means changes in how we define public and private, among
other things. Like the REM song goes, I've said too much, I haven't said
enough. . .