The social consequences of dissociation: lessons from the same-sex marriage debate.

Author:Cloud, Doug

In the decades since Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) published The New Rhetoric, argumentation scholars have been working to fully understand its philosophical and practical implications. Scholars have shown particular interest in the dissociation of concepts, an argumentative move through which a single, unitary concept is split into two concepts in order to "remove an incompatibility arising out of the confrontation of one proposition with others ..." (p. 413). According to Frank (2007) and others, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca saw dissociation as one of the most important contributions of the New Rhetoric Project (NRP) (p. 329). There has been a concerted effort to understand dissociation as a rhetorical device that leads a rich life in public deliberation-that is, as something other than solely a mode of truth (cf. Gross, 2000; Johnstone, 1978). One of the problems revealed by this effort has been that Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca do not devote sufficient attention to the in-situ functions of dissociation in social, cultural and political contexts (Ritivoi, 2008, p. 188). Several accounts of dissociation-in-action (Gross & Dearin, 2003; Ritivoi, 2008; Femheimer, 2009) have begun to address this oversight by exploring the social consequences of dissociation in public and political controversies. This project seeks to continue this effort by highlighting problematic uses of dissociation in the same-sex marriage (SSM) controversy in the United States.

Exploring the social consequences of dissociation is an important continuation of the New Rhetoric Project given that Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca envisioned argumentation and moral action as deeply interconnected (Frank, 2004, p. 267). Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the NRP has been its consistent, if not always successful, attempt to create a theory of argumentation that is applicable to real-world situations and audiences (i.e., the particular), while still accountable in some way to trans-contextual standards of morality and rationality (i.e., the universal) (Crosswhite, 1989).

Rhetoricians and others concerned with the quality of public deliberation have strong reasons to consider the social consequences of any form of argumentation. However, dissociation is particularly important in this regard because it names an argumentative solution to an age-old difficulty: public debates attempting to resolve shared problems often become mired in disagreements about definitions. As Schiappa (1985, p. 72) argues, dissociation is a common solution when individuals or publics are struggling with some form of the question, "What is X? "In the case of the SSM debate, arguers sometimes ask, 'What is marriage? " and then answer their own question by dissociating heterosexual marriages and same-sex unions (e.g. Girgis, Anderson, & George, 2012). The SSM example may seem relatively new, but definitional questions like "What is marriage?" have been with us since at least the time of Plato and they have important consequences for public policy (Schiappa, 2003, p. 36). Indeed, definitional problems--and the dissociations that often result--have social consequences because they do epistemic work, authorizing worldviews and legitimizing beliefs and behaviors (Ritivoi, 2008, p. 189).

This essay explores problematic uses of dissociation in the same-sex marriage controversy and their social consequences through an analysis of three talking points guides authored and distributed on the Internet by three anti-same-sex marriage advocacy organizations in the United States. My argument with regard to dissociation is twofold:

  1. I suggest that dissociation's ability to remove incompatibilities has helped opponents of same-sex marriage sidestep a perceived incompatibility between their opposition to SSM and their stated commitment to values like equality and tolerance. Removing this incompatibility has had social consequences insofar as it offers an out, a way of excluding LGBTQ people without having to say that that is what is happening.

  2. I argue that dissociation's quasi-logical format has allowed opponents of same-sex marriage to disguise arguments based on social animus-which are at heart moral assessments of marginalized groups-as conceptual arguments about what marriage means.

Preceding my analysis, I offer an introduction to the dissociation of concepts and the search for its social consequences. I assert that a broader view of dissociation, a view that includes mere attempts at it, is necessary in order to better understand dissociation's public uses. A primer on the rhetorical context surrounding the talking points guides is also offered.


First named by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) in The New Rhetoric, the dissociation of concepts is an argumentative logic that begins with an "original unity of elements comprised within a single conception and designated by a single notion" (pp. 411-412). This single concept is then split into two terms (term I and term II) to resolve a perceived incompatibility. Term II, the more valued term in the dissociation, offers a criterion against which term I can be evaluated. The most basic example of the dissociation of concepts involves variations of a split between appearance and reality. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca explain this split using the example of a stick in water: "When a stick is partly immersed in water, it seems curved when one looks at it and straight when one touches it, but in reality it cannot be both curved and straight" [emphasis original] (p. 416). This incompatibility is resolved by separating the reality (the stick is straight) from mere appearance (it looks curved). This pair would be expressed as stick-appearance/stick-reality (generically, term I/term II) with the less-valued term I on the left side. Arguments from dissociation draw on preexisting conceptual hierarchies that Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca term philosophical pairs. The stick-appearance/stick-reality dissociation draws on a well-known philosophical pair: appearance/reality. The appearance/reality pair is productive partly because it is widely accepted within Western culture-reality is generally seen as preferable to mere appearance--and also because one can dissociate nearly anything by adding real and apparent as modifiers (e.g. apparent change/real change). There are, of course, many other philosophical pairs that can support arguments from dissociation. For example, the pairs letter/ spirit and interpretation/letter often butt heads during controversies involving the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca describe dissociation as effecting a widespread and nearly permanent change in the way we understand a concept. Dissociation is so profound and lasting that a concept, once subjected to it, is never the same again (pp. 411-412). This characteristic of dissociation helps distinguish it from its Perelmanian cousin, the breaking of links. The breaking of links involves merely separating concepts that have been wrongly associated whereas the dissociation of concepts entails a new, fundamental division that becomes common linguistic property (p. 411). If strictly applied, this criterion would make dissociation a relatively rare phenomenon because very few individual arguments outside of philosophy have an effect this dramatic.

However, dissociative logic doesn't have to shift the earth on its axis. Some have argued that dissociation can simply make room for a new concept or understanding to emerge and circulate. For example, Frank (1997, 1998, 2004) suggests that the dissociation of concepts is a valuable contribution to rhetorical theory--and a valuable practice-because it can allow apparently incompatible ideas to coexist without necessitating the permanent destruction of either. Frank sees this potential as vital to the health of a pluralistic society. Likewise, Fernheimer's (2009) account of dissociative disruption advances the idea that an argument may be dissociative even if it does not bring about the profound change that Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca seem to require. Other scholars have taken a similarly broad view, chronicling attempts at dissociation that failed in some way but had important consequences nonetheless. Examples can be found in Zarefsky, Miller-Tutzauer, and...

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