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Rhetoric

Attunement.  A word I often deploy (e.g., my recent claim that writing instruction involves, at heart, the cultivation of an “ethics of attunement”).  Lately though, I’ve come to think that I’ve been using this term somewhat thoughtlessly.  In the following I’d like to map out attunement’s various meanings, and in the process, argue for a redefinition that foregrounds attunement as a conscious act.

At the most basic level, attunement implicates sound.  A group of individuals is “in tune” when the members of that group vibrate at the same resonance or pitch.  Attunement is the act of moving into alignment with the group’s shared frequency.  There’s an interesting mix of conscious and unconscious, mental and material elements at play in such a act (which perhaps explains attunement’s recent popularity as a means to describe writing and rhetoric).

Attunement, it seems to me, can be driven by an articulable desire—intent to attune, we might say—or it can be totally outside the realm of conscious control.  It can be a rational, step-by-step process of experimentation and adjustment (as when a singer flexes his throat muscles, trying to match a note on a scale) or it can be something that the body seems to do completely on its own (as when we find ourselves becoming nervous around a nervous person).  There’s always some bodily or material aspect at play.  Attunement can never take place completely in the mind or “on paper.”  We’d never say that one formal equation, for example, is in tune with another.  Relatedly, attunement implicates the emotional or affective.  Within psychology, I am told, attunement indicates how in touch one is with the moods or emotional states of another.  To be attuned is to register, and respond, to those states.

So attunement casts a wide net, indicating the ability, either conscious or unconscious, of one entity to adapt (by physically adapting) to another.  With its hint of emotional receptivity, and related ability to capture so much beyond the logical, the term has become commonplace in rhetoric and composition.  Like “care” or “hospitality,” attunement is almost always used in a positive sense.  If we dig a bit deeper though, we realize that attunement is in fact ambiguous, both morally and otherwise.  To be able to intuite that your friend is upset, and display sympathy, is attunement, sure.  But Hitler, for example, also showed a great degree of attunement in his ability to register the energy of German crowds and replicate that energy in his own bodily movements.  So attunement can be for good or ill.

As noted, I have recently written of composition’s ethics of attunement.  In that discussion I used attunement to capture composition’s commitment to teaching students how to know what needs to be done in a given rhetorical situation.  This process is never totally cerebral: we have to be able to “read” the emotional tenor of an audience, for example.  It’s never completely outwardly focused either: we have to constantly monitor both the situation and ourselves, wary of the ways in which our biases and predispositions shape what we see and feel.  My original argument was that via this dual focus we can help bring our thinking and action in line with what is demanded by a situation.  This ability to attune is ultimately what makes a good writer.

Integrally, attunement, as described above, always involves an act of judgement.  I obscured this fact in previous discussions and would like to make it clear now.  As commonly used, attunement—because it is so extra-rational—seems to imply that one has no choice in the matter.  If the crowd wants a speaker to stroke their anger, this thinking goes, the attuned rhetor is one who provides it.  To go against the crowd, to keep breathing regular and heartbeat steady when all around you breaths and beats are racing, represents a lack of attunement, yes?  As the term is conventionally used, this seems to be the case.

We don’t want to teach student-writers to be like Hitler (obviously).  So how can we understand attunement in a more sophisticated manner?  We need a force which checks attunement.  What force though?  To what is the process of adaptation responsible?  The answer, I’d like to suggest, is the ideal.  The ideal is the good, that towards which we strive and by which we measure our practice.  It is a verbalizable statement (not a feeling or “vibe”) and necessarily abstract.  It is actualized via stories which illustrate the application of the ideal in specific contexts.  For example, one might say that she is driven by a commitment to “Justice.”  She might know stories– specific, context-rich examples– of when justice prevailed and when it did not.  Given a situation, it is her responsibility to measure that situation, and compare it to her set of stories.  Though this process, she can know how to think and how to act.  Should she allow herself to become attuned to the fury of the crowd—to channel and embody that passion—or should she remained detached?

This analysis adds a third element to what I previously defined as the dual motion between self and world.  An “ethics of attunement,” we can now say, involves triangulation among self, world and ideal.  Unlike pure bodily or emotional attunement, this is by definition a conscious process. It involves thinking.  Of course, there are no guarantees here.  We must “read” ourselves, the situation and the various ideals implicated, and can never be sure that our reading is right.  In this regard, judgement in the face of actual choice imbues every element of an ethics of attunement.  As suggested, this articulation marks something of a break with previous definitions of attunement, which focused too heavily (in my opinion) on the unconscious and bodily.  It is necessary though, I believe, if we are to understand attunement as a moral act.

“Human lives are more important than animal lives.”  This is the claim often offered as justification for the recent death (murder?) of Harambe the gorilla.  As with all supposed truisms, there’s a lot of unexamined assumptions at play.  Let’s take a look.

First, what we must avoid, if we want to think critically about this or any subject, is a simple reversal of the proposition to be examined.  To claim something like “nature is more important than the will of humans” in response to the above claim is banal, I’d argue, because it does nothing to escape the logic of the original claim.  It still posits: 1) “nature” and “humans” as concrete, divisible entities; and 2) the feasibility of somehow weighing one against the other. So, a “pro-nature” statement, while bold, isn’t particularly clever.

A more sophisticated analysis begins by breaking down what “human lives are more important than animal lives” really purports to mean.  First, as indicated, it suggests that human lives and animal lives exist in separate spheres, and that the good of the one must be weighed against the good of the other.  Second, it suggests that agreed-upon criteria exist for this measurement.  It is the application of these (invisible) criteria that make the statement “true” in some universal sense.

Once deemed true, the maxim is then brought to bear on particular cases.  What we must remember though is that maxims like this aren’t solely means of post-hoc justification.  Instead, they work to shape our understanding of events as they happen.

We can imagine the above statement as a kind of lens through which we view the encounter between Harambe and the young boy.  Belief in the validity of this statement, and the underlying logic, lead us to see the encounter between boy and gorilla in a certain way—as a zero-sum game, perhaps, as an interaction of opposed entities between which an accounting can and must be made.  This in turn influences our actions.  And the actions of the zookeepers who decided that Harambe needed to die.

Now, the above is not to argue that the keepers made the wrong decision.  (In fact, in situations such as this I’m inclined to respect the judgment of those closest to the action.)  It is to say though that we need to be aware of the ways in which language structures our world.  What happened to Harambe is a terrible tragedy.  My claim is that in this particular case, the logic of our beliefs, by drawing distinctions between certain elements of experience, may make such tragedies more likely to occur.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant is perhaps best known for his “categorical imperative”– the notion that in any particular situation one should act in the way they’d want everyone else to act. As a pragmatist, I reject such totalizing claims. Still though, in rhetorical practice we should try to heed Kant’s dictum. In general people speak as they are spoken to. They act as those around them act. We are all responsible, therefore, for setting the tone of debate and discussion.

The above claim is based on a rather simple premise. In short, it assumes that humans are innately social creatures. We look to our environment to determine how we should behave. Much of this attunement is automatic, unconscious. How many times, for example, have you coughed or yawned or chewed your pencil because others around you did? Such adjustment is constant, both on a bodily level (yawning) and an epistemological level (what is understood as proper evidence in a debate, for example). Overtime, norms develop. They are never set in stone though. How we talk, think and engage is fluid, always changing based on the aggregate of millions of trivial encounters. To twist a popular faux Gandhi quote, like it or not, we are the change we see in the world.

Consider the following (particularly outlandish) example. A Florida gunmaker recently began marketing an assault rifle with special features which ensure that it can “never be used by Islamic terrorists.” He claims that his new weapon can combat religious violence. It does so by sporting a cross, various biblical verses and a label which indicates that “God wills” the use of the weapon (seriously).

As is glaringly apparent, this gunmaker, while claiming to be against religious violence, is following the same logic used by those he opposes. Both see violence as justified in the name of religious certainty. It’s just that to the gunmaker, ISIS or Al-Qaeda are certain about the wrong things. His truth and theirs diverge, but the way they go about promoting said truths—the rules they set for engaging with difference– are fundamentally similar.

Presumably my left-leaning reader can see the foolishness of the gunmaker’s stance. He thinks he can combat force with force, not realizing that the behavior he promotes (violence in the name of religion) only leads to force against force, ad infinitum. In short, the end he seeks is impossible under the logic his rhetoric demands.

I’d like to argue that many would-be justice seekers fall into the same trap as the Florida gunmaker. Take for example the idealistic young social justice warrior detailed here. She recently got into a public spat with her professor over whether European treatment of Native Americans constitutes “genocide.” She believes it does because her “grandparents told her.” OK. That’s fine. According to the above article though, she also seems to demand that her professor feel the same. That’s not fine.

A closer look reveals that the student’s logic, like that of the Florida gunmaker, is self-defeating. She claims that “I think X because of my experiences, hence everyone should think X.” Because humans are social creatures though—because we never act in a vacuum—she must assume that for her argument to gain traction others must utilize similar logic. Under such a regime her professor is inevitably pushed to mirror her claim: “I think Y because of my experiences, hence everyone should think Y,” he says. This leads to an unproductive exchange. No minds are opened, no growth is achieved. It’s just a shouting match. Which, as the article indicates, is exactly what happened.

So, to draw a tentative conclusion, I would argue that on a purely practical level we always have to be aware of the rhetorical tone we strike and the implications of the widespread adoption of that tone. If we condone violence, others will condone violence. If we refuse to accept multiple truths, others will do the same. In short, in rhetorical engagement it is unreasonable to expect others—be they ISIS or history professors—to act differently than we do.

Rhetorical practice is, of course, inherently unstable. With the introduction of new actors, issues and technology, the way people talk and think changes. Anne Applebaum claimed recently that the rhetoric of “The Donald” is representative of such a change. In short, she sees Donald Trump as bringing the vulgarity of online discourse into the political sphere. He’s the “voice of the bottom-feeders.”

I agree with Applebaum that vitriolic online discourse can have (and is having) real-world impact. What defines this discourse though? And what should we do about it?

First, when discussing online discourse, it’s important to keep in mind the extent to which to it represents a radical democratization of language. The barriers to rhetorical dissemination have dropped, those formerly silenced can speak. Viewed in this way, one can easily label Applebaum an elitist. She’s a celebrated foreign policy analyst, a graduate of Yale and Oxford. Certainly the way she speaks (and thinks) diverges from the proletarian norm. And who is to say that her rhetorical style– the one she implicitly advocates for in her attack on Trump– is superior? Rhetorical practice is, after all, inherently unstable. And allowing more people to bring their ways of knowing and speaking into the conversation is good, right?

Yes. But letting more people into the conversation has consequences. In a crowded room, with everyone speaking at once, there’s a strong incentive to yell the loudest. This is what we often see online. On Twitter and Facebook discourse is coarsened, nuance disappears. This often (but not always) acts to undercut the benefits of rhetorical exchange. The experience of the other is not substantively engaged with, opinions do not shift, new bonds are not forged. Instead of conversation we have rhetoric as a sort of therapeutic primal scream.

Applebaum’s concern is that this type of rhetorical practice, via Trump, is infecting politics. I have similar concerns with regard to the academy. Though generalizations are always dangerous, it’s fair to say that a certain mode of sensemaking is typically practiced in the library, lab and classroom. This involves listening, questioning and complication. It typically does not involve yelling really loud about your feelings. Such discursive practices are contingent, of course, but they are not arbitrary. We talk this way because it helps us accomplish the goals of the academic enterprise.

So, assuming that Applebaum is correct and that destructive communication practices are migrating off the internet into other spheres, how should academics respond? As a starting point, I would urge teachers and scholars (and anyone else interested in promoting healthy discourse) to consider their own online behavior. Do we engage with a multitude of opinions? Do we seek to promote this sort of engagement in others? As we move through loud, crowded digital rooms do we insist on speaking (and thinking) with nuance and respect?

Unfortunately, even among educated, left-leaning subjects such behavior is often not the norm. This makes the role of those of us well-versed in academic discourse even more important. We must bring our mode of sensemaking to the public sphere. We must provide a coherent, workable rhetorical model for others to follow. Otherwise, as Applebaum suggests, our students, and eventually our colleagues and we ourselves, are going to be talking (and thinking) just like The Donald.

One of the main tenets of Jamesian pragmatism is the idea that truth is created through action. No statement, this argument goes, is a priori true. Statements only become true when they cause us to act. For example, my belief that a chair can support my weight causes me to sit in it. It is through this action that the statement “the chair can support my weight” becomes true.

This simple method of judging truth can prove quite disruptive. Consider Wild Bill. This is a cantankerous old man whom I used to sit next to on the bus. He claimed to believe that a certain type of honey cures cancer. The pharmaceutical companies are suppressing this fact, he said. But did Bill actually believe that “honey cures cancer” was a true statement? I would argue that he did not. If he would have believed the truth of this statement he would have acted upon it, for example by consuming large amounts of honey or marketing honey to cancer patients. What Bill was doing was a pathological sort of verbalization. Professing this certain belief was doing something for him (supporting his sense of himself as a “subject who knows” perhaps). A Jamesian analysis reveals the hollow nature of his claim.

I think about Wild Bill a lot when considering the current discourse around climate change. Take for example this recent Rolling Stone article. It ties together a lot of disparate facts about heat waves and the behavior of walruses to make a claim that “our climate change nightmares are already here.” Certainly, this sort of alarmist, quasi-apocalyptic discourse appeals to many people (which is why, of course, Rolling Stone is running the article). Does anyone actually believe these apocalyptic claims about melting icecaps and a ten-foot sea level rise though?

No. When viewed from a Jamesian perspective, most of the people who profess a belief in the certainty of radical climate change do not believe their own claims. Very few people, for example, are selling their property in New York or Miami, or investing their kid’s college fund in businesses that stand to gain from global warming. Like Wild Bill, they are not willing to act on their supposed beliefs. This lack of action marks their claims as mere verbalizations, not truth claims per se.

The above analysis has a couple of interesting consequences. First, it helps explain why the left has had so much trouble convincing mainstream America that climate change is a serious problem. If supposed climate change believers don’t even believe, how can they possibly hope to persuade skeptics?

It also makes one wonder what work this apocalyptic discourse is doing for its adherents. What benefit do climate change evangelicals gain from their claims of impending doom? I think clearly there is a social aspect– people purport to hold these beliefs to fit in, gain status in their communities, etc.

Given the prevalence of this apocalyptic discourse though, and the unthinking intensity with which many subjects cling to it, there’s likely something more at work. Perhaps apocalyptic discourse acts as a sort of guilt-release mechanism. Modern bourgeois subjects feel a deep unease about the way they live. To profess to believe that the world is coming to an end because of their Subaru and air conditioning and air travel somehow relives them of this guilt. Such a pathology is interesting to consider. Especially if you’re an apocalypse-prone subject!

Could Donald Trump possibly be the next president of the United States? There’s a part of me– an impish, nihilistic little part– that wishes the answer were yes. The Donald is such a repulsive character that his electoral success would confirm every negative notion I’ve ever had about democracy, the current media climate, the American electorate, etc.

Atlas, the Donald is not going to be president. Though in the current summer media doldrums Trump is filling conference rooms, it seems that even the people coming to ogle him aren’t really serious about his candidacy. To my friends on the hard left– those who are certain (and have been since 1848) that capitalism is on the verge of collapse– I can only say sorry, still not there.

That said, I do think Trump has tapped into something. Specifically, I wonder if his hyper-aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric will cause other Republican candidates to recalibrate their positions on this issue. Perhaps I’m delusional, but it seems that there is room on the right for a populist, stridently anti-immigration candidate. Let me explain how this would work.

Since George W. Bush, if not earlier, establishment Republicans have tried to placate a number of competing constituencies on the immigration issue. First, there are business interests, who want lots of immigration, both legal and illegal, because it drives down wages. Second, there’s the white working class, flag-waving folks who love Jesus and guns, but of late have been decimated by falling wages. Finally, there’s Hispanic voters. Generally, when weighing the value of these groups Republicans have favored the business and Hispanic blocks (perhaps feeling that the white working class vote is guaranteed). This has resulted in policies that talk tough about illegal immigration, but in the end, maintain the pro-business, pro-immigration status quo.

As noted, I don’t think many people take Trump seriously. Those who do though are mainly rural white people who respond viscerally to his anti-immigration rhetoric. They’re hurting economically and immigrants, illegal and otherwise, provide a convenient scapegoat (blaming “wetbacks” is a lot easier than trying to suss out the workings of the global economy, after all). A candidate who could stir up enough passion among this group, it seems to me, could largely offset loses with Hispanic voters and maybe even the business set. This becomes especially plausible when you consider, in the general election, that certain areas with many Hispanics (California, Texas) aren’t really in contention. This is in sharp contrast to places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri– finely balanced swing states with lots of angry, economically disadvantaged white people.

Looking over the Republican field, my attention is drawn to Scott Walker. Among all the Republican candidates he seems to be the most capable of capitalizing on a bluntly “pro-American” message. He has even made some noise about seeking to limit legal immigration. This is a big move. It will be interesting to see if he can siphon off some of the Donald’s nativist energy.

Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof maintains that “black people are the real racists.” Meanwhile, in Kansas, a legislator is reprimanded for calling a certain bill, and her colleagues who support that bill, “racist.” Taken together, what do these events say about the contemporary usage of this term?

In short, it appears that “racist” has lost all descriptive power. No one, not even Root, the most extreme, textbook example of a “race hater” can see a reflection of himself or his beliefs in this word. That’s because “racist” is now solely an insult. We all agree that it’s bad to be racist. And calling something “racist” carries emotional weight. Paradoxically though, because of this weight the term is basically useless. Labeling something as “racist” works not to point out what may be overlooked. Instead, it’s just an quick way to announce the speaker’s disapproval. It drives a wedge between people with different views, shuts down conversation. Therefore, we should stop calling stuff “racist.”

I recognize this is a big claim. In flushing it out, I first need to note that I’m not claiming that “race doesn’t exist” or that “we live in a colorblind society.” Instead, I’m saying that we need to find new ways to describe the (very real) social inequities which shape said society.

Like all evaluative terms, “racist” and “racism” are abstractions. Like all abstractions, they contain multitudes, and therefore often work to hide as much as they reveal. Consider the broad spectrum of positions which these terms could legitimately characterize. Of course, we have murderous race hate like that of Dylann Roof. That is racism. We also have fear of or lack of sympathy for other races. This is racism too. Next, we have the promotion of ideas or policies which benefit one race at the expense of another (the “racist” Kansas legislators likely fall into this category). Finally, we have the systematic denial of another group’s subjective truth (Fox News, with its inability to acknowledge the existence of racial inequality is “racist” in this regard).

So “racist” clearly casts a very broad net. What I’m saying is that we need to be more nuanced in parsing out these different positions. The Kansas legislature clearly favors the interests of white Kansans over minority groups. They don’t hate minorities the way Dylan Roof does though. To imply that they do just isn’t constructive. Therefore, instead of calling them “racist,” with the overtones of racial hate that implies, we need to think of new, more descriptive ways to point out the unfair and socially destructive nature of their beliefs. Yes, this is difficult. It’s the only way forward though.