From Second-Personal to Third-Personal Standpoints

face of a prisoner

Standpoint in communication with prisoners affects accountability. Drawing insight from Fydor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (1880), a mid-twentieth-century philosopher put forward the ethical principle:

We are all responsible for everything and everyone in the face of everybody, and I more than the others.^

That principle includes an abstract, first-personal statement of accountability. More recent work in moral philosophy argues that the second-personal standpoint is essential to moral obligation and accountability:

moral obligation’s normativity essentially includes an irreducibly second-personal element. Moral obligations do not simply purport to provide supremely authoritative reasons. They are also what we are responsible to one another for doing, what members of the moral community have the authority as such to demand that we do by holding us accountable second-personally. … There is simply no way, I believe, to establish accountability except within a second-personal framework.^ ^

The argument for this position is primarily conceptual and analytic. It includes the idea that second-personal moral accountability occurs among persons who understand themselves to be free, equal, rational agents. Freedom, equality, and rationality are concepts used primarily in third-personal high political philosophy of morality and law. Circumstances of second-personal communications highlight particular inequalities between persons and actual differences in freedom and practical reasoning. That existential reality is particularly relevant to communication with prisoners. Second-personal communication with prisoners has considerable importance in supporting accountability for imprisonment.

The importance of personal communicative standpoint hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated. Empirical psychology indicates that personal communicative standpoint affects the actual embodied process of human understanding.^ Even in formal written texts, females differ from males in having a more personally involved communicative style. Much more frequent female use of the pronoun “you” is a prominent feature of sex differences in communicative style.^ For historical analysis, communicative standpoint offers the advantage of being less culture-dependent than the concepts of free, equal, and rational persons. Accountability for imprisoned citizens in fifth-century Athens compared to accountability in twenty-first-century America can be better understood in terms of personal communicative standpoints than in terms of high political philosophy.

Within competition for acclaim, tragic poets in fifth-century Athens had a second-personal standpoint. These poets and their addressees could easily meet personally in ordinary city life. They presented their work at city festivals that personally identified poets, that were important civic gatherings, and that institutionally enforced distinctions between creative genres. Poets in fifth-century Athens were understood to be teachers to their fellow citizens. Their fellow citizens were, in turn, judges of the poets as contestants. These circumstances made tragic plays second-personal communication between tragic poets and festival participants.

The second-personal standpoint implicated in tragic plays increased accountability for imaginary suffering. Ancient Greek tragedy isn’t well understand as presenting the ethical principle: “Everything present is just and unjust and equally justified in both.”^ Greek tragedies didn’t demand particular actions from festival participants. Tragic poets implored festival participants to respond to the acute suffering they presented. That response, in turn, could be reason for specific public action: “I must, because of what I saw and heard.” Accountability arose not just from the common experience (“you too saw and heard”) but also from the poets’ authorized role as teachers within a religious festival (“you who do not learn the lesson will be punished”). At the same time, festival participants held the poets accountable as teachers by judging them as contestants. To the poet-teachers claim “look and listen,” the judges-participants had the counter-claim, “you are best,” or “you are unworthy.” Tragic plays did not determine specific citizen action, but increased citizens’ accountability for represented suffering.

Competition for attention among authors in early nineteenth century England generated significantly different communicative style from that of classical Greek tragedies. “What is a Poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him?”^ In early nineteenth-century England, these questions intensely concerned authors.^ These questions show authors examining themselves, their work, and their public from a third-personal standpoint. Competition for attention implied circulating public work to as many persons as possible. The public work circulated independently of the writer’s knowledge of readers and reader’s knowledge of the writer. The public work itself imagined the readers and the writer. The public work in competition for attention implied an art of relational encapsulation, a politics of imaginative equality, and a communicative standpoint that was predominately third-personal.

A third-personal standpoint lessens authors’ accountability for their works and lessens public accountability for responding to represented suffering. In competing for attention in early nineteenth-century England, poets styled their texts as artifacts and impersonal sources of emotions:

poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings^

for what is poesy but to create
from overfeeling good or ill^

meaning by poetry an intense and impassioned power of communicating intense and impassioned impressions respecting man and nature^

A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.^

This poetry made emotion an inward experience of the solitary self and distanced feeling from actual relations between persons. This poetry was not addressed to its readers. It was overheard. This poetry implicitly justified failure to attract contemporary attention and created possible impersonal effects now and in the future. Such third-personal public work has been uncritically universalized. Literary analysis now describes emotional response to fiction as third-personal and declares that “artworks, in the standard case, command attention, not action.”^ Emotions created through literary representations are now understood to have perception-shaping potential, rather than action-mobilizing potential.

Communicative standpoint has real effects. Communicative standpoint is a choice that occurs within different structures of communicative competition. The communicative structure of fifth-century Athens favored a second-personal standpoint. The communicative structure of literary competition in early nineteenth-century England favored a third-personal standpoint. Communication shifting from a second-personal standpoint to a third-personal standpoint lessens communication’s effect in promoting accountability. That shift particularly affects the communicative position of prisoners and the fundamental political responsibility of punishment.

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