Blessed Be War: Rhetorical Ethics and the Categorical Imperative

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.

Rise of the Bottom-Feeders: Online Discourse, Politics and the Academy

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.

Wither Cultural Studies?

As a teacher, I have a conflicted relationship with cultural studies. I don’t deny that cultural products are implicated in larger systems of power or that it’s advantageous to be aware of those relationships. I worry though about the rhetorical behavior cultural studies-style pedagogies encourage. In short, as practiced in American universities, cultural studies seems to have no positive program. This makes it “academic” (and not in a good way!). Let me explain.

As I use the term, cultural studies is a mode of cultural analysis which arose in England with the work of thinkers like Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. It became popular in American universities in the 1990s and though not theorized much these days, still has lingering influence. It general terms, CS involves scrutinizing cultural products to reveal ways in which they are implicated in / work to support unjust power structures. A typical CS pedagogy involves the analysis of an advertisement or film or popular song, the teacher demonstrating how this object constructs its viewer as a consumer, legitimizes an unjust economic order, is racist or sexist, etc.

I admit, cultural studies-style analysis can be fun. It’s intellectual detective work. From a pedagogical perspective though, many have come to see it as something of a dead-end. We show students how to deconstruct cultural products. They do it for a grade. They have no inclination to do it outside the classroom though. Or even if they do, the ability to detect ideological influence doesn’t change their behavior as consumers or citizens.

The above complaint is nothing new. In my field of rhetoric and composition it has been addressed by Patricia Bizzell and Thomas Rickert, among others. My concern is not though that cultural studies is ineffective in bringing about revolution (no pedagogy can, of course). Instead, I worry that it makes any sort of substantive change less likely by encouraging division instead of intersubjective understanding.

As I see it, the ideal cultural-studies subject is skilled at critique, at seeing through the gauzy veneer capitalism throws over its racist/sexist/anti-human machinations. Where does she go from there though? The next step, in line with the mission of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham school, is activism, more often than not defined as “raising awareness.” This typically involves the publication and dissemination of critical findings, the formation of collectives with other critically aware subjects to discuss said critical findings. What comes after that though?

Most often nothing. And herein lies the problem. When cultural studies works it provides for nothing more than the creation of echo chambers in which one can speak / be spoken to by other like-minded subjects. This is what I would argue we are seeing among politically aware students on college campuses today. Their expressions of outrage are so fervent because a pedagogy of critique allows for nothing more than outrage (and confirmation of that outrage). “We see how X is racist/sexist/anti-human,” they scream, “why can’t others?” Because your (cultural studies-influenced) program doesn’t speak to them, I would argue. It’s academic in that it’s in-group speak. It’s therapeutic in that it feels good on an emotional level. It’s not a positive program though in that it includes no mechanism for outreach, the cultivation of shared understanding and thereby, change.

So what would a positive program for cultural studies look like? In my opinion, it would have to be focused on analyzing cultural products to see what they do for the consumer. Yes, American Sniper, for example, is a terribly racist / sexist / xenophobic film. Why does it appeal to so many subjects though? What need does it satisfy and how can we work with these subjects to satisfy said need in less socially destructive ways?

Of course, such a program doesn’t work unidirectionally. In the sort of engagement I propose, the critically aware subject must surrender certainty, be open to change and co-evolution along with the American Sniper-loving good ol’ boy. This is difficult. It’s the opposite of therapeutic because it often feels really fucking bad to have your beliefs challenged / changed. That said, I think such a program could help revitalize cultural studies as a pedagogical tool. At the very least, it would help cultural critics seem less shrill to those outside their discourse community.

PC Sister v. Marx Bro

Distinguished feminist scholar Sara Ahmed recently published a long, thoughtful piece in which she ties together a number of hot academic issues. Her basic claim is that critiques of neoliberalism—those which challenge the increased corporatization of the university, for example—have become a tool of racial and sexual oppression. She makes some good points. Let’s discuss the metanarrative at play though. In short, it’s a certain type of internecine squabble I see a lot in academia. Let’s call it “PC sister v. Marx Bro.”

In one corner we have Ahmed, a self-described “angry queer woman of colour.” This description gives us a good idea of her investments. This PC Sister is concerned with protecting the rights of women within the “hostile institution” which is the university. She goes about this via insistent demands that her subjective truth and that of other harassed/intimidated/excluded subjects be acknowledged. As such, her rhetoric include a good dose of what professor Laura Kipnis would call “melodrama.” Ahmed is suffering… “And so much violence,” she writes, “is not called violence because it is understood as a right and a freedom…We are up against history; walls.” And you damn well better recognize!

In the other corner, we have our Marx Bro. He has a beard and corduroy jacket. He’s into Das Kapital, Gramsci, maybe a little Rosa Luxemburg. For him, it all comes down to political economics, “scientific” analysis of big economic structures. Unlike our PC sister, his rhetoric is resoundingly not rooted in the personal. Asher Wycoff, a “speculative leftist and armchair revolutionary” with a particularly great blog, can stand in for this figure.

A few weeks ago Wycoff wrote a piece touching upon the idea of the student as consumer. Ahmed believes that the “student as consumer” trope, like other economic-based critiques, is being used by figures within the university to marginalize gendered/racialized viewpoints. Wycoff agrees that the views of students must be respected. He reaches this conclusion though using the exact economic logic Ahmed finds so problematic. Students, Wycoff says, are acting like consumers because college, in our current “post-industrial, neoliberal hellscape,” is (in an objective sense, no doubt) a commercial transaction.

I imagine that Ahmed and Wycoff, both being good leftists, share many of the same goals. Their pieces aren’t even necessarily contradictory. It is possible, after all, that economic trends are reshaping the university (Wycoff) and evildoers are referencing those trends to justify their evil deeds (Ahmed). Still though, as a pragmatist, I do get frustrated by the PC Sister v. Marx Bro dynamic.

First, I think we all need to be aware of how we justify our views (both to ourselves and others). As we’ve seen in my very reductive analysis, the PC Sister often relies on the personal, the subjective, a shared sense of wrongedness. The Marx Bro is more likely to resort to the objective, the coolly structural. Ideally, we should have respect for, and be able to leverage, both sources of authority.

Also, I worry that both discourses are too quick to posit enemies, especially within the university. For those who rail against corporatization, it’s usually administrators. For radical feminists, it’s white males clinging to privilege. Sure, administrators and white males are terrible. By attacking them though are we jeopardizing our own social influence? Should academics follow something akin to Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment?” It’s something we should consider.

Microaggression / Macro-aggravation

Of late, the concept of “microaggression” has emerged as the hot, new PC boogeyman. In today’s Washington Post law professor Eugene Volokh chimes in, discussing recent efforts by UC-Berkeley to dissuade faculty from saying things like “America is a melting pot” for fear that such statements may alienate students of color. Is this censorship? Suppression of ideas? Let’s discuss.

At the heart of Volokh’s article is a worksheet distributed by UC-Berkeley to inform faculty about unintended discrimination. This is fascinating document. It defines microaggressions as actions, intentional or otherwise, which “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” This includes (obviously problematic) stuff like clutching one’s purse when a black person walks by. It also includes statements which act to deny the existence of racial/gender discrimination. For example, one should be wary of telling a person of color that “in this society, everyone can succeed.”

Prof. Volokh’s main concern is that efforts to prevent professors from talking like Republican presidential candidates represent a suppression of certain viewpoints. I agree that taken out of context a prohibition on statements such as “there’s only one race, the human race” sounds ridiculous. Prof. Volokh perhaps feels that this is a true statement. Great. Of course he should be able to think and talk and theorize about our fundamental oneness.

At the same time though, perhaps Volokh, as a sophisticated reader and thinker, is being slightly disingenuous. The document he cites clearly states the importance of context. Of course, not every humanistic platitude is an act of racialized violence. No one is claiming this. Instead, the cited worksheet simply tries to explain (presumably to a white reader) how certain statements, in certain contexts, might be construed. When her professor asserts “color-blindness,” for example, a certain brand of prickly activist (I know the type, trust me) might hear “this white man thinks he doesn’t have to acknowledge my truth.” Such a response, even if silly, is real. It can impact the educational relationship and therefore must be respected.

To get a little more general, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between “truth” and consequences. In the university environment, all parties (ideally) are entitled to their own truth. Prof. Volokh can believe that “America is a melting pot” and the student activist can believe that “America is a cesspool of oppression” and AMAZINGLY they can both be right. This is pluralism. This is a good thing.

At the same time though, in exchange for the right to be right, both actors must be aware of the consequences of their statements. Volokh and the student activist must recognize that their truth is not necessarily shared. Therefore, that truth must be presented with a certain amount of rhetorical nuance. If anything, the statements on the worksheet lack this nuance. It is that, not their validity or lack therefore which makes them offensive.¹

So to summarize, as long as we keep it at the level of rhetorical etiquette, I see no problem with the policing of “microaggressions.” On the other hand, if such policies work to restrict what truths can be held and promulgated, they must be resisted.

1. Admittedly the text of the worksheet does not make this distinction. I’m reading it generously.

Are Teachers Really Afraid of Their Students?

A lot has been written lately about hyper-sensitivity on college campuses. The latest entry in this genre is a long, rather complex analysis on Vox.com, published anonymously by a professor at a “midsize state school.” This writer’s claim is that a reductive vision of social justice, one based on feelings rather than objective analysis, is making for a toxic learning environment and ultimately harming the progressive cause. Feelings can’t be wrong. So, this logic goes, the only way to win a debate is to yell really loud.

Ironically, this article resulted in something of a backlash, with a social media figure yelling about how she shouldn’t be quoted without her consent. That’s an interesting position. And seems to prove the writer’s point about hyper-sensitivity. On the internet. What about in the classroom though? Are things really as bad as they seem? Are teachers really afraid of students?

In my experience, no. I’m a (white male) teacher at a major public university. My (grad student) colleagues and I complain about a lot of stuff, but getting in trouble for offending our students isn’t very high on the list. Still, many teachers obviously feel differently. Perhaps they’re justified. Perhaps my colleagues and I are naïve. Still though, I can’t help but think that the hysterical online environment is unduly tinting their perception of the classroom situation.

Of course, as a teacher you will occasionally encounter prickly, hyper-politically correct (or politically incorrect) students. Part of being an educator though is learning how to negotiate with such people. As an example, let’s look at a situation described in the Vox article.

During a discussion of the 2008 financial crisis, a student voices his opinion that said crisis was caused by “Fanny and Freddy giving homes to black people.” This is a big, obviously problematic claim. Note how the Vox commentator responds though. Instead of seeking to engage the student, to bring out the causes and potential effects of such a belief, the teacher instead attempts to “state the facts,” telling the student that his view is “an oversimplification, and pretty dishonest.” The student feels disrespected and files a complaint, accusing the teacher of bias.

I understand the teacher’s frustration: the student hijacked his lesson plan. The administrative complaint could have been avoided though through proper pedagogical practice. Instead of positioning himself as “the subject who knows,” to misquote Lacan, this teacher should have sought to explore, with his students, the gap between their varying perspectives. In short, when yelled at he shouldn’t have yelled back. Instead, he should have practiced what he preaches in the Vox article.

My larger point here is that digital discourse seems to encourage a certain sort of rhetorical behavior. This, as the Vox commentator correctly notes, often involves yelling really loud about your feelings. Teachers must work to counter this influence. We need to cultivate listening, understanding and collaborative, critical exploration. And the place to start is with our own practice, both online and in the classroom. If we do this day-in-day-out, we have nothing to fear from our students.