Signs and Democracy

In this post I argue that signs are necessarily democratic. My reasoning depends on the definition of process signs from A Process Philosophy of Signs. It expands the meaning of democratic beyond a narrow political sense, before returning to the interdependence of two types of democracy: democracy of intervention and democracy of participation.

At first glance the argument is unpromising. We often think of signs as signposts (a no-entry symbol) or symbols (a national flag at half-mast) or a warning (an intruder alert on an electronic device) or a special feature (a style, uniform or distinguishing mark). These operate as orders to do something or to react in a certain way. They are far from necessarily democratic, since they curtail freedom and replace it with a form of compulsion.

Creative commmons from

The same coercion holds true for at least some longer chains of signs, such as an official letter. When we receive a court-summons, we take in a message commanding us to do something; to appear before a judge, for instance. These signs, and language more generally, appear to be vehicles for powers to make us do what we might not want to.

Mike Epp from Bensalem, PA, USA / Public domain

For orders and commands, the force of language is internal and external. The sign or letter is a medium for a power external to the sign to tell us to obey, as signified by the official seal of the court in the above letter. Appear at the Jury Assembly Room at 8:30 AM, or else…

There is a more hidden internal force: the meaning of the sign is itself constricting. ‘At 8:30 AM’ is an expectation, not only of an obedient act, but also of a particular understanding. Not ‘at 4:30’ but ‘at 8:30’. Language doesn’t only convey a restrictive power. In some cases, it appears to be such a power, because some signs imply agreement to a meaning, followed by an appropriate response to it.

The internal and external restrictions carried by signs aren’t necessarily opposed to the political sense of democracy – though this does not of itself demonstrate that signs are democratic. Democracy is about the rule of the people, rather than of a smaller unelected group. This rule needs to maintain order and defend its values. To do so, it will require signs and official communications sustaining the democratic state.

Orders and commands can support the principal values of democracy: freedom and equality. Citizens of a democratic state should be free, with the constraint that this freedom must not impair the freedom, equality or well-being of others.

All citizens should have equal rights to participation in the decisions of the state, to the benefits that flow from it and to protection by the state, again with varying constraints. Many of these restrictions are controversial, such as rights to the unequal distribution of benefits (of land, say) or rights accorded to beliefs contrary to freedom and equality (on the basis of religion, for instance).

With special attention to moral and religious rights, Joshua Cohen summarises this balance of rights, based on freedom, equality and constraints, for a democratic and deliberative ‘reasonable pluralism’:

To say that citizens are free is to say, inter alia, that no comprehensive moral or religious view provides a defining condition of membership or the foundation of the authorisation to exercise political power. To say that they are equal is to say that each is recognised as having the capacities required for participating in discussion aimed at authorising the exercise of power.

Joshua Cohen ‘Procedure and Substance in Deliberative Democracy’ in Thomas Christiano (ed.) Philosophy and Democracy: an Anthology, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp 17-38, p 18

I will rely on the ideas of freedom, equality and the importance of deliberation for democracy to defend the thesis that signs are necessarily democratic. By ‘deliberative’ equality and freedom Cohen means this:

… to proceed on the basis of a free public reasoning among equals [and to provide a framework for it] participants regard one another as equals; they aim to defend and criticise institutions and programs in terms of the considerations that others have reason to accept, given the fact of reasonable pluralism and the assumption that those others are reasonable; and that they are prepared to cooperate in accordance with the results of such discussion, treating those results as authoritative.

‘Procedure and Substance in Deliberative Democracy’ p 21

I disagree with Cohen’s emphasis on intentions and behaviours. His argument requires that we attend to aims, to the ways we regard others, to considerations, assumptions, preparedness, and to ways of treating results. In my view, there are more fundamental grounds to democratic deliberation and they do not depend upon intentions and behaviours.

According to Cohen’s approach, freedom and equality follow from dispositions and intentions. These guarantee the democratic role of some coercive signs, by providing a wider context for confidence in the role played by that coercion and general ideas of freedom and equality. So a court summons can be read as supporting freedom and equality, because we trust in the wider aims and intentions of the court.

I have two objections to securing signs through a wider context of intentions. First, the guarantee depends on further signs and language, because we have to ‘read’ the intention. This sets off an infinite regress from intentions, to signs, to intentions. At what point do we reach an intention that it not a sign needing to be interpreted, some kind of immediately trustworthy commitment to equality and freedom? Don’t be naive, they’re lying…

Second, signs do not require this guarantee, because they already are the basis for a deeper kind of equality and freedom in the creation, interpretation and communication of signs. Public reasoning and discussion rely on signs and language, irrespective of whether participants regard one another as equals and independent of their intentions.

In deliberations, we pay attention to arguments, to pros and cons. We also use style to bring others round to our view. Finally, we rely on the pragmatics of successful discussion; on the practice of how to organise and pursue deliberation successfully, that is, without breakdown. This does not require attending to additional intentions and aims, even about equality and freedom.

There are pragmatic reasons for regulating debate and deliberation. These can avoid any reference to equality and freedom, replacing them with a practical approach to how the debate works. Some of these regulations can be unequal (such as barring inexperienced speakers until they have the necessary skills) and many of them will curb freedom (like limiting time and what can be said).

In political situations aims and intentions are well-understood, to the point of irrelevance. We know all too well that the other side has different goals to us, so we rely on arguments, on forms of expression, on assessments of probable outcomes, on the rules of debate and, eventually, on votes to arrive at common decisions without having to use force. This doesn’t mean that we cannot take account of aims and intentions. It means that they aren’t necessary for successful deliberation and that they often obstruct it.

A disposition or an intention – a regard or an aim – is hard to define and detect. It is inherently obscure and unreliable, since concealed behind the statements communicating it. Signs and language replace this concealment with evidence. This can lead to layers of hard to discern meanings and effects, but it starts with available signs – words, distinctive features, images, sounds, sensations, anything that can be included in a sign or stand as one.

To take a current example, in the online world of phishing and spam, we have become wary of professed intentions. The underlying evidence is what matters; the address the communication came from, not the statements of good intentions. To train people not to fall for criminal messages, we have to do more than tell them that there are dishonest communications and bad aims. We have to teach them how to detect evidence of phishing:

This turn to evidence leads to the central claim of my argument. If we define signs as processes that provide the basic evidence in deliberation, then deliberation depends on and encourages freedom and equality, because processes of creation, interpretation and interaction with signs imply and support freedom and equality in four ways:

  1. Signs are not limited in how they can be made and followed. We can freely create new signs in response to other signs and, in principle, all sign creators are equal in this freedom
  2. Signs have networks of effects. These can be described according to different interpretations (in A Process Philosophy of Signs I call these diagrams of the effects of a sign, in order to expand the idea of interpretation). These interpretations can also be made freely and, in principle, we are equal in this freedom
  3. Signs are subject to overarching codes and regulations, such as a particular legal system or definition of what can count as knowledge, but we are free and equal in being able to construct signs and interpretations counter to these frameworks or beyond their claims, for instance, when we put forward a counterpoint (I disagree because) or an anomalous conjecture (But what if) or describe a non-standard individual or group experience (It is not like that for us)
  4. Given the nature of signs as freely made, freely interpreted and free to use in resistance to codes, and given the equality, in principle, for everyone to use signs in these ways, there is always the potential and good practical reason to insert signs within free and equal democratic deliberation, as the best way to resolve clashes between signs, interpretations and codes

A sign is created by grouping elements to make a new set {a, b, c, …}. You can group any elements you like and anything can be an element. In the image below, Banksy combines a loving hug, a girl, a bomb, a defaced wall and a menacing powder cloud. An interpretation of the effects of this new sign could be that it is a peace symbol, ‘to start revolutions and to stop wars’. Another could be that it is a pointless despoiling of a cityscape.

There’s a similar act of subversive creation when a new scientific hypothesis is proposed. A longstanding explanation is overthrown partly through the medium of a revolutionary sign, such as the shift from {earth, centre, universe} to {sun, centre, solar system} in the Copernican Revolution. This is not to say that the new sign demonstrates anything. There are many proposed signs that are judged to be false or go nowhere. It’s to say that the flexible nature of signs and language is part of a freedom to challenge and question.

The general theories resisted by Banksy’s image could be arguments for the rightness of war, or calculations around collateral damage, or the low status of street art. The wider democratic debate might be whether a country should be making a profit from arming repressive regimes, or using its military to intervene in foreign countries.

Banksy. Girl with a Bomb. By User MykReeve on en.wikipedia – Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 17 January 2004., CC BY-SA 3.0,

When graffiti artists take familiar images and words, recombining them into new signs, they rely on a freedom to create and show equality in this freedom. Since we can take any set of components we like to make a sign, this creative act is particularly well-suited to challenging established ways of thinking – like a stencil of a girl hugging a bomb as she would a doll, or a model placing the earth in orbit to the sun against all current beliefs.

In contrast to theories of signs that give them individual meanings, the process account puts signs into series, with associated effects and contexts. The process therefore includes the selection of the sign, its effects, contexts and interpretations, as well as the laws applied to it and deliberation about the sign (whether democratic or not).

This extended process implies that signs are constantly changed by their setting and by new signs combining with them. The new sign where the earth became mobile only gradually took hold through a difficult and sometimes violent process: ‘Truth is born of the times, not of authority’ (Brecht).

It therefore makes no sense to consider the meaning of a sign alone, or the meaning of a sign as something eternal and unchanged. A sign is a shimmer, a disturbance, within waves of other signs. Each new sign can change earlier ones and begin different lines of thought.

All we need is a wall and some spray paint to deface a Banksy and alter its meaning, effects and interpretations.

Since signs always have effects – on feelings, acts, bodies, language, values and systems – any new sign alters the balance of social order to unpredictable degrees. That’s why political powers make great efforts to control the creation and distribution of signs, whether through the ownership of news outlets, or the direct censorship of communication.

It is also why the sciences have strict rules as to what constitutes a valid sign in a given situation (as data, for instance). This is to counter the risky and wasteful production of signs counter to established theory and practice. The freedom and equality afforded by signs are inherently dangerous and subversive, but this is also their value.

Signs can resist or support more general codes, structures and laws. These clashes between signs, interpretations and codes have the potential to be resolved according to democratic decisions at many levels, from the simplest discussion between partners, to debates and votes in parliament.

Though this democracy is only potential, there are strong practical reasons to believe it is also the best way to resolve differences and come to decisions, where the best means the least violent, most efficient in the long run, and best for the participants as a whole, as subgroups and as individuals.

Wall in Palestine Flickr Collective, To Exist Is to Resist . Creative Commons 

Akin to democratic values of free speech and right to vote, the more basic sense of freedom and equality around signs is a potential for intervention. We are all free to intervene by creating, diverting, resisting and discussing signs.

This potential follows from the nature of signs, because they can always be created again and in different ways. It also follows because signs must take their place in competing interpretations of their meaning and effects. Furthermore, when signs fall under claims to more general jurisdiction, these can be resisted or supported through different signs and diagrams of effects. Finally, there is always the potential to resolve competing claims and conflicts democratically, in the wider political sense.

Is this creation of signs, proposing of interpretations and resistance to (or support for) codes and laws real freedom and equality? Here are objections to the idea that freedom and equality can be grounded in signs. They follow from the idea that signs are subject to internal and external powers:

  1. Even if signs can be created freely, this creation is no freedom when compared to other forms of political power that can shut down signs easily and with force
  2. The same role for power holds true for interpretations of the meaning and effects of signs. Interpretations can be silenced and crushed, for instance through censorship or control
  3. My use of ‘in principle’ with regard to equality in the creation and interpretation of signs indicates how we are not free in practice. This leads to the objection that creation depends on opportunities connected to education and position in society, on the characteristics of particular languages, and on restrictions connected to grammar and logic
  4. Similarly, the idea of a ‘potential’ insertion of signs in democratic deliberations, where we are free and equal, is an admission that in practice, the use of signs is not democratic. It depends on wider institutions that might well be repressive
  5. Even if there is freedom to create signs, for any functioning democracy this freedom should be curtailed in the name of truth and order.

According to these critical points we aren’t actually free to create signs at all. That freedom must be won elsewhere. The struggle for freedom and equality is not at the level of signs but in politics. Furthermore, real democracy depends on the truthful and orderly use of signs and language.

To answer these criticisms I’ll distinguish between two types of democracy: democracy of intervention and democracy of participation. Each relies on the other. Signs guarantee the possibility of intervening in whatever way we like. This is a wide freedom, open in every creative direction, but it is a minimal equality, since limited to expression and dependent on a wider social framework.

Political democracy guarantees rights of participation in society in free and equal ways. Democracy of intervention is therefore reliant upon democracy of participation for a framework that can give rights to intervention and encourage it, but also restrict it; for instance, in banning hate speech.

Made possible by the nature of signs, democracy of intervention is necessary because it supports critical innovation, sensitivity to differing views and the creative transformation of life and society, in response to new demands, problems and desires.

Though intervention is guaranteed by a wider democratic framework, it is also the reason for this framework: to support the coexistence of differing positions. It is the way the framework evolves, by introducing new critical and creative ideas. Intervention feeds difference into democracy of participation: thereby ensuring it is responsive to populations, groups and individuals. Democracy thrives because it depends on the creation, interpretation, resistance and democratic discussion of signs.