Phone Use vs Phonocentrism

The written word doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.

Socrates, as described in Plato’s Phaedrus


I was recently listening to the radio. An expert on human relationships was speaking with the host about some matter. During the chat, the expert gave the host and audience some tangential advice regarding text messaging:

“don’t text when angry, sort out your arguments by calling or in person”.

Sage council, I thought. I regularly advise my clients likewise.

But then calls and texts flooded in from listeners: The public swearing to the gods that text message fights are so much more effective and less stressful than spoken ones. This seemed to be the majority view.

How could I be so out of step with the people?

Socratic Speakers

Foundational philosopher, Socrates, would certainly agree with me on this one.

Socrates refused to write his own ideas down – walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

Socrates philosophy has been conveyed to us today mainly via his pupil, Plato. It was Plato who recorded the Socrates quote that leads this article, in the text, Phaedrus.

In Phaedrus, Socrates starts by noting that the eponymous Phaedrus has lured him out to the countryside from his beloved city of Athens by offering some books to read. Despite this expression of love for the written word, Socrates ends the dialogue by casting some serious shade on writing.

Writing is dead wisdom, as far as Socrates is concerned. It has the appearance of life, like a picture of a person appears alive, however like a picture it is unable to talk back and thus explain itself or elaborate on its own meaning. This leaves the written word open to misunderstanding, misuse and maleficence.

And this is how I feel about text fights. Dead words delivered to a disbelieving eye. Once sent, forever on record. The sender rendered impotent to change or champion them. The reader forever empowered to (mis)interpret them in whichever way they wish.

If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen

But my feelings obviously don’t match the radio station callers’:

One man said that his wife was more articulate than he, and in a spoken argument he felt that he couldn’t properly explain his position. Writing a text allowed him to say his part without succumbing to overwhelming emotion.

A woman said that her daughter would always talk back and try to have the last word (not said by her, but I suspected she would do the same). Text messaging allowed a finality to the argument.

Other callers/texters said that having the argument in writing prevented false accusations being levelled against them later. Like lawyers, they respect only the written record.

The general theme of the callers seemed to be that written words are safe. They seemed to be united in the feeling that they couldn’t trust themselves, or the other arguer, not to inflame the situation via strongly spoken words.

It seems that they feared that their immediate and primary emotions were likely to exacerbate the argument, or perhaps lead them to capitulate. So, they were relying on a more considered mode to carefully construct text.

The written words represented their cool logical side.

Postmodernist Penmen

When I was in high school, it was common for my favourite recording artists to say something along the lines of “I try not to impose my meaning of the song onto the audience. Whatever meaning they take from it is just fine”.

This commonly held attitude didn’t spring into grunge-soaked minds from nowhere. It reflects the wisdom of postmodernist philosophy, which was popular at the time. Postmodernism was very eager to allow the audience to draw their own interpretations out of art and culture.

Post modernistic Big-Daddy, Jacques Derrida, staked a lot of his career on challenging the dominant wisdom that the spoken word trumps the written. Derrida derided Socrates and the entire western philosophic tradition as being phonocentric (making it sounds sort of like soft bigotry). Derrida claimed that the written word speaks more universally and removes human ego from the centre of the message.

I won’t claim to be able to fully represent Derrida’s work. But it does seem that there is something of a postmodern reasoning behind those who prefer texting fights to the regular old-fashioned way.

Text-lovers seem to accept the risk that their words will be mal-interpreted, just so long as their big human egos and big human emotions remain outside the text.

Meanwhile, we Phonocentrists prefer messy, open-ended verbal stoushes. Just so long as we remain present to be able to shepherd our own words along the path to true listener understanding.

How should I Fight?

I continue to feel that, on the balance, text messaging is a more harmful way to resolve differences than speaking. But I also think, it’s better to text your way through your differences with loved one, then to not deal with them at all.

So, I remain a phonocentrist. But I now have somewhat more appreciation of the wisdom of text-lovers.

Writing offers us the ability to tell others what we wish to feel and would like to mean. We can certainly avoid harmful fights and arguments if we were to step outside of ourselves for a moment and take an “objective” view of the problems that occur between us. Perhaps this means permitting the better angels of our nature to prevail.

And I see that many people really can’t trust the worse angels of their nature from turning a tense situation into a dog’s breakfast of chaos and hurt.

So, if you can talk it out, talk it out. And if you can’t, trust in the text.

Speak Your Mind


Suite C5
102-106 Boyce Rd
Maroubra Junction, NSW 2035
(02) 8958 2585

Have Questions?
Send a Message!

By submitting this form via this web portal, you acknowledge and accept the risks of communicating your health information via this unencrypted email and electronic messaging and wish to continue despite those risks. By clicking "Yes, I want to submit this form" you agree to hold Brighter Vision harmless for unauthorized use, disclosure, or access of your protected health information sent via this electronic means.