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.

The Lesson of Nabokov’s Father

This summer I happen to be tutoring a young, upwardly mobile Chinese woman. In trying to explain to her, in the limited vocabulary of an ESL lesson, my understanding of democracy, I could do no better than cite the example of novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s father. With compliments to Richard Rorty, I’d like to share this story and my interpretation.

Nabokov’s father, so the story goes, was a nobleman and liberal politician in pre-Soviet Russia. He died defending his political rival from an assassin’s bullet. This, Rorty notes, is the action of a true liberal. How so? As I understand it, Nabokov’s father valued the democratic process above all else. He rather die than allow another’s voice (even that of his political rival) to be silenced.

What ideas about the world could underpin such a belief?   First, there’s immense faith in the wisdom of the community, i.e. a recognition that all knowledge is social and that open debate and discussion is the best way to generate such knowledge. There’s also a willingness, to use a term from my last post, to disavow the role of the “subject who knows.” Instead of dictating policy, Nabokov’s father, through the promotion of democratic institutions, sought to create an environment in which policy could be cultivated. The most important thing was to get the conversation going and to keep it going, even if it meant getting killed.

I think the story of Nabokov’s father, and the great epistemological humility which underlies it, are something everyone should consider. The core idea– of respect for process rather than per-determined product– can also be applied to realms of action far removed from politics. As an example, consider rhetorical ethics, a theme which underlies much of this blog. What is the goal when we speak or write? Do we seek to make our mark upon the world like some petty vandal? Or do we seek to work with others, through reflection, and careful, respectful listening, to construct new knowledges? Nabokov’s father would believe the latter. And I certainly agree.