Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dominant and Insurgent Discourses: Part 3

Insurgent discourses question the taken for granted assumptions we have in society and offer alternatives to the dominant discourse and related ideologies. An insurgent discourse attempts to steal symbolic power from the dominant discourse. “Some point to an insurgent discourse emerging in popularity after Earth Day, 1970, called the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP). The NEP emphasizes beliefs and values such as ‘the inevitability of ‘limits to growth,’…the importance of preserving the ‘balance of nature,’ and the need to reject the anthropocentric notion that nature exists solely for human use’” (Cox, 2006, p.59).

Within the NEP are examples of an apocalyptic narrative that is discussed by Cox. Paul Ehrlich’s (1968) The Population Bomb, Rachel Carson’s (1962) Silent Spring, and Murray Bookchin’s (1990) Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future, are all listed as radical narratives that have emerged as part of this paradigm. As I will discuss below in the discussion of message design, this form of narrative has had mixed results and in many cases has thwarted action and adoption of the NEP.

The reason for a focus on dominant and insurgent discourses is that discourse has real world implications. “As dominant discourses coalesce around specific policies and institutions, they form symbolic legitimacy boundaries that help to legitimate these policies. These symbolic legitimacy boundaries serve to safeguard specific policies and practices, and the authority of certain groups and institutions…[i]n an important sense, the function of …[environmental] communication is to help establish—or challenge—the legitimacy of actions affecting the environment. Legitimacy is generally defined as the right to exercise authority. Yet such a right is not granted naturally. Instead, recognition of legitimacy depends upon a specifically rhetorical process…One of the most rhetorically powerful claims to legitimacy in American political culture is that something is just common sense.”(Cox, 2006, p. 59-60)

One can frame people, ideas or policies as inside the boundaries of symbolic legitimacy (e.g., the scientific community is in consensus on this) or you can frame people, ideas or policies as outside the boundaries of symbolic legitimacy (e.g., environmentalists are wackos, alarmists and emotional uninformed citizens). “Symbolic legitimacy refers to the perceived correctness, authority, or common sense of a policy or an approach to a problem relative to other competing responses”(Cox, 2006, p. 333).

So a market approach for example, under the current boundaries of symbolic legitimacy would be seen as the sensible approach to many environmental problems. Market mechanisms such as carbon taxes or rebates on energy efficiency products are more often than not put forward as the most appropriate solutions. The role then of environmental communicators is to expose our dominant discourses for what they are and initiate a conversation that helps us as a society create discourses that will help us solve our environmental crisis.

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