Thursday, August 07, 2008

Polluting Your Enemies

Jeffrey Alexander rests his strong program for cultural sociology on the claim that we have to take the content of culture seriously. In The Civil Sphere he delivers what he thinks are the core binary pairs of American civil-uncivil values.

Alexander argues that we use these civil/uncivil binaries in just the way that Durkheim said we use the deep opposition of sacred and profane: we conduct ritual purity struggles. In the civil sphere we find campaigns of Us versus Them, in which we clothe our position in the positive side of the binary, and try to wrap our opponents' position in the negative side. Alexander describes this as polluting your enemy.

I was put off by this phrase at first, but I quickly came to find it useful. We usually describe polluting in a more indirect or bureaucratic way. We might say that someone is polluting "the environment," or even just polluting, without specifying what. But it is more powerful and direct to say Smith pollutes Jones by connecting Jones with a bad value or an embodiment of bad values ("He's just like Hitler!").

1 comment:

Eastis said...

Once I understood this sacred/profane obsession that Alexander & Smith have, I started to notice that "dirty" words are really common in public discourse. Dirty cops, tainted money, stained reputations, tarred with the same brush as evil person X....anybody got more?