Friday, 17 October 2014

On Speaking Practically

In my class about library planning and design, we’ve been listening to architects talk about the libraries they’ve designed and I’ve been doing research on Arthur Erickson and the West Coast Modernists. A recurring theme has been the conflict between the architects’ design philosophy and the libraries’ and librarians’ needs. For instance, Erickson believed that architecture ought to blur the difference between interior and exterior and that architects should allow building designs to rise from the site—from its topography and surroundings—rather than impose them on the site.*
The main gallery, or Great Hall, of UBC's Museum of Anthropology, which is sometimes considered Erickson's masterpiece.
And this leads to some beautiful buildings…but when such buildings leaked, Erickson would say it was merely “part of nature.” Such response is guaranteed to make a librarian squirm. In order to preserve materials, strict environmental controls are required. A blasé attitude towards leaks isn’t just impractical, but it violates some of the fundamental values librarians hold. Or, I should, it is impractical because it violates some of the fundamental values librarians hold. I’ve come to understand that claiming that something is impractical is a rhetorical move that appeals to a person’s values without appearing to do so.**

Generally, when a person appeals to the practical by saying that a proposed idea cannot be followed because it is impractical, they are saying either that 1) the proposed idea is impossible or 2) the proposed idea costs too much in terms of time, effort, money, space, or material resources. In the first case, it isn’t actually a case of practicality but possibility, and so invoking the practical is not quite accurate. In the second case, the reason they aren’t interested in following through with the proposal is that its costs are not worth the value the proposal would offer. Therefore either 1) they do not value the proposal (“This isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on”) or 2) they do value the proposal, but they value the other things they could attain with those resources more. If a person says, “Erickson’s design philosophy is nice, but it’s impractical,” they are either lying about the first part (they don’t think Erickson’s design philosophy is nice at all) or they have other values which trump the value the attribute to Erickson’s design philosophy (preservation matters more to them than acknowledging the location of the building). If you think a sports car is too impractical for you to buy, maybe you just don't like sports cars, or maybe you'd rather spend the money on groceries because you value groceries more.

By calling the proposal “impractical,” however, or by appealing to “practical realities,” the speaker rhetorically obscures the fact that the assessment involves their own values. Either the proposal is itself impractical, or they appeal to practical realities. This is a rhetorical move which makes their assessment sound objective and therefore shuts down further discussion; it is the kind of move people make when they are trying to finish the discussion, and it is effective in doing so because it smuggles values into the argument under the disguise of objective facts. Although I feel like this is always insidious, it is not always cynically intended. I suspect, for the most part, that speakers either assume that their interlocutors share their values or do not realize that a conflict of values is at all involved. In that last case, I suspect people’s values are often most inscrutable to the people who hold them, so they do not realize that a conflict in values is at the heart of the debate. And although this is a move meant to finish the conversation, I do not suspect that people are being deliberately unfair when they use it, in the sense that I do not suspect most people are even really conscious of their rhetorical strategies as they use them. Rather, they have goals, and they just sort of work toward them as it feels right. So I do not especially blame people for appealing to “practical realities”; often they are justified in doing so. Nonetheless, it is troubling as a rhetorical move because it tries to obscure the underlying values in an air of objective facticity, perhaps even to the speakers themselves.

As an attempt to rectify this, I will define practicality so that it makes its reliance on values clear:
Practical, adj. Of an object, process, or action, supports or does not hinder the users’ ability to act according to their values and intentions.


*Erickson’s design philosophy is more interesting and more involved than my summary makes clear. Look him up!
**I included a shorter and less aggressive version of this argument in the presentation; I excluded any sense that there's something wrong with appealing to the practical, though, because I didn't want to sound like I was blaming my classmates. Many of them appeal to the practical quite often.

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