Twitter and the Trump Tapes (A Lesson Plan for Freshman Composition)

I recently had a successful class session which involved evaluating tweets made in response to the infamous “Trump tapes.”  I thought I’d share my lesson plan, in case any other teachers are interested.

Some background: I teach freshman composition at a large public university. The theme of our course is “thinking about thinking,” with the underlying premise being that this sort of (self-)reflection is necessary to be a successful writer.  We do a lot of activities which involve trying to understand the worldviews (or ideologies, you could say) which underlie certain claims.  This activity is in that vein.

Note: This is designed for a 75 minute class.

Background Material:

Prior to this class session, we watched and discussed this interview with Professor Nicholas Epley, a behavioral psychologist from the University of Chicago.  In it he discusses “egocentrism” and how individuals innately view the same event (he uses 9/11 as an example) in different ways.

My class also uses a standardized heuristic to critically analyze statements.  We created this together and have termed it “The DACO method.”  Here is a handout which explains this method and provides an example.  In short, it involves taking a statement or belief and tracing the Definitions and Assumptions which underlie it, the Consequences to which it could lead, and where it fits in a range of Other Opinions.  For this lesson plan to work, it’s not necessary that you use the DACO method.  If you do want to use it though, it may be useful to go over the above handout as a group.

Lesson Plan:

I began the class by breaking the students into groups of 2 or 3.  I then explained that we are going to watch a video that illustrates Epley’s point about the subjectivity of interpretation.  We then viewed this CNN report featuring the video in which Donald Trump is caught making various vulgar comments about women.  [Note: this version of the video is edited slightly, but still pretty offensive.  You may want to issue a “trigger warning.”]

After watching the video, I distributed this handout, which lists 8 tweets interpreting said video.  Tweets, of course, are very short, which makes them neat encapsulations of the writer’s worldview.  Using our DACO method, we then worked together as a class to interrogate the first tweet.  The goal was to try and understand “where the writer is coming from,” how they see the Trump video (and the world at large) and how we can learn to negotiate with such a perspective.

The first tweet states –> If you’re like ‘that’s just men being men’ after listening to the #Trump Tapes it’s seriously time you get some new male friends.

My class discussed how “men” and “friends” might be defined in this case.  We then discussed the assumptions at play, particularly how this writer likely views Trump’s comments as unusual and wrong, and anyone who engages in such talk as shameful.  Regarding consequences, we decided that this writer wants less vulgar talk because it’s “offensive,” meaning it upsets certain people.  Going deeper, we realized that the writer may believe that such talk leads to physical violence.  He or she may therefore view their tweet as a part of an effort to reduce such action.  Finally, we discussed a range of other opinions.  Opposing opinions can often be generated, we found, by challenging the writer’s premises.  For example, if an opponent could show that vulgar talk doesn’t lead to violence, the argument implicit in this tweet would fail.  Such a belief (that vulgar talk doesn’t cause physical violence) is an example of an “other opinion.”

After analyzing the first tweet as a class, each group worked separately to analyze the other 7 tweets.  After about 20 minutes, they were asked to present their findings to the class, facilitating another group discussion.

Conclusion:

Overall, I found this to be a fun and intellectually lively activity.  The tweets examined come from a variety of perspectives; through critical analysis the students had the opportunity to dwell in those perspectives, enriching their understanding of the other (and the way s/he thinks and writes).  Because tweets are so short, such analysis requires both creativity and attention to the nuances of language.  Also, by examining the intended consequences of each tweet– which I frame as “what the writer is trying to accomplish”—the students began to think about rhetorical tactics.  This are all valuable outcomes, in my opinion.

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Trump, Sanders & The Violence of Idealism

With the classic Beatles’ track “Revolution 1,” John Lennon, famously (and controversially) sends a mixed message about his support for violent revolutionary activity.  “If you’re talking about destruction yeah, don’t you know that you can count me out… in,” he sings.  Aside from being a prime example of Lennon as proto-punk, I think this juxtaposition says much about the nature of far-left politics.  In short, it suggests that political idealism, especially of the far-left variety, always contains an element of violence.  Relating this to current US politics, the question becomes, will Bernie Sanders supporters embrace this violence and vote for Donald Trump?

As I’ve written about before on this blog, all human activity takes place in the shadow of ideals— visions, however vague, of the way the world should be.  Those who profess radical political beliefs are particularly intimate with their ideals.  Ideals though, by their very definition, are situated in opposition to the world of actually existing human affairs.  This means that to embrace an ideal fully, to long for it and work towards its realization in the manner of a true radical, is to wish for the destruction of the actually existing.  After all, the real and the ideal can’t exist alongside each other.  One must give way.

So some level of violence is inherent in all idealism.  Likewise, on a practical level, a cursory review of the historical record reveals that indeed all (or nearly all) instances of revolutionary change are occasioned by destruction.  That the failure of the old is necessary for the new isn’t a particularly novel idea.  It terms of human psychology, it makes sense that things must get really bad before people embrace new options.  Simply put, if the old system is working, you’re not going to get revolutionary change.

This brings us to current state of US politics.  Imagine you’re an idealistic Bernie supporter (or maybe you actually are).  You look at the world and see inequality and oppression.  Things are bad.  Unfortunately, as the outcome of the Democratic primary shows, most people do not think things are bad enough to require revolution.  Instead, they demand only a tepid incrementalism, a politics which leaves the current elites, and the system by which they benefit, in place.  In short, the majority of the population is still tied to the real, thereby rejecting the ideal (they can’t exist together, remember)

So what has to happen for the majority to embrace a (leftist) ideal?  The answer, unfortunately for most happy-go-lucky idealists, is destruction.  For radical political change to occur, the system must utterly fail.  The real world must be shown to be degraded, incapable of supporting human flourishing.  In short, for things to get better, things have to get much, much worse.

According to the this logic, we can see how a far-left Bernie supporter could make a rational case for voting for Donald Trump.  As numerous experts have opined, a Trump presidency would be an unmitigated disaster.  The economy would collapse, international relations would fray.  By all indications a lot of people would get hurt, yes.  I’d like to suggest though that this violence—this unmitigated human suffering—is part of the logic of the ideal.  A Trump presidency, by this thinking, is desirable simply because it would be so terrible.

Of course, much radical literature supports my claim.  Mao and Stalin (and ISIS and Al-Qaeda for that matter) recognize that the road to utopia starts with instability, with destruction.  John Lennon knew it too.  In the end though, he backed away from the ideal, choosing to live in the real world.  Like him, Bernie holdouts must make a choice: the violence of the ideal or the (slightly less intense) violence of the real.  I hope the above makes clear the necessity of that choice.

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 Call of the Donald: Republicans and Anti-Immigration Rhetoric

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.