In 2007, I gave the keynote speech at the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. At the time, I thought the talk was too conference-specific to develop beyond that occasion, but I’ve since changed my mind and am currently working on turning it into an article, tentatively titled the same as my speech: “Unwilling to Listen: How Do You Have a Civic Dialogue When Each Side Isn't Civil.”
I’m revisiting this speech because it addresses the following question that I often get about rhetorical listening: “What’s Next?” Sadly, given the Arizona shootings of January 2011, Sarah Palin’s call for radical individualism, President Obama’s subsequent call for more political civility, and the current political protests in Wisconsin, my talk also invokes the questions:
What happens in civic discourse when people are “unwilling to listen”? (hence my article title); and
How Do You Have a Civic Dialogue When Each Side Isn't Civil? (hence my article’s subtitle--and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out here to the 2007 conference organizer Barb L’Eplattenier who posed these questions to me).
So, I begin by asking, How Do You Have a Civic Dialogue When Each Side Isn't Civil? The most obvious response is: “You can’t.” But if we (and every time we use “we,” we should remember Mary Daly’s pronouncement that pronouns are our most persistent problem when talking across differences) take “You can’t” as a first premise, then a cultural logic unpacks as follows: if we believe we can’t have a civic conversation because each side isn’t civil, then one effect is that we stop trying to talk to each other. A corollary effect is that we become unwilling to listen to each other and to ourselves. Of course, an unwillingness to listen is accompanied by the following rhetorical stances:
(1) Rigidification of Personal Beliefs, which results in a limited space for negotiation between and among people, communities, institutions, and countries.
(2) Personal and Cultural Defeatism.
(3) Personal and Cultural Nihilism.
(4) Personal and Cultural Despair.
I believe that the above cultural logic and its accompanying rhetorical stances dominate the discourse in our country today, driven by individuals’ feelings of isolation within a global economy, driven by the busy-ness of our everyday lives, driven by our fear about the economy, and driven by a politics of fear and power … power and fear. All of this is dysfunction in our discourse… and needs to change.
But let’s pause for a moment. . .
John Schilb has written a book, Rhetorical Refusals, which theorizes moments when we purposely choose not to listen. These moments are different for all of us, depending on our individual identifications. Sometimes these refusals are necessary, psychologically and/or culturally. For example, I’m not going to entertain an outrageous request from my child; nor do I feel compelled to listen to groups, such as the KKK, rehash age-old prejudices. But sometimes these rhetorical refusals are dysfunctional, as in my aforementioned discussion or our current politics of power and fear… and do need to change our rhetoric(s).
So back to the question of my article's subtitle—How Do You Have a Civic Dialogue When Each Side Isn't Civil? If the obvious answer is “you can’t,” then perhaps we should listen to that question differently—(a) redefining terms, (b) redefining cultural logics, and (c) redefining rhetorical stances.
One suggestion is that we could redefine terms by complicating them with feminist theory. For example, one phrase that has haunted civic dialogues is public sphere. That raises the question: what, exactly, is the public sphere? The most famous answer to that question is the Habermas-Lyotard debate, which pits Enlightenment ideals again postmodernism. Yet I believe that this debate may be productively complicated with feminist theories.
For example, Robin Goodman brings a feminist lens to this debate in her book on critical pedagogy entitled World, Class, Women: Global Literatures, Education and Feminism. The book explores how the “shrinking of the public sphere and the rise of globalization influence access to learning, definitions of knowledge, and possibilities of radical feminism.” She opens her book as follows:
In 1938, as Europe was about to lead the world in to a brutal conflagration, Virginia Woolf recognized the urgency for a fundamental educational change. This educational change would necessarily include economic transformation. As well, Woolf understood [in Three Guineas] that without this change, there would be an inevitable spiraling toward escalating militarism and widespread destruction. Today, … Virginia Woolf’s lesson remains unlearned.
In The Return of the Political, Chantal Mouffe identifies another unlearned lesson about the public sphere: the need for civic virtue and collective action. Mouffe claims:
the liberal illusion that harmony could be born from the free play of private interests, and that modern society no longer needs civic virtue, has finally shown itself to be dangerous; it puts in question the very existence of the democratic process . . . . It has generally been admitted that the “liberty of the moderns” consists in the peaceful enjoyment of private independence [; and that] this implies the renunciation of the “liberty of the ancients,” [which is] the active participation in collective power, because this leads to a subordination of the individual to the community.
Although we must be careful not to romanticize past civic spheres where feudalism, slavery, and gender inferiority were accepted, I think Mouffe’s point about contemporary individualism is well taken. In addition, in “Rethinking the Black Public Sphere: An Alternative Vocabulary for Multiple Public Spheres,” Catherine Squires reminds us that the public, or civic, sphere is not only collective but also multiple. She imagines this multiplicity … in ways that escape a naïve identity politics but that foreground power structures and power differentials.
So, if we contemplate the public sphere via Goodman’s education and economic reform, Mouffe’s civic virtue and collective action, and Squires’ multiplicity (and I’m interested in investigating more theories of public sphere that foreground race), THEN . . .
With such a feminist lens, we may be able to redefine cultural logics. When confronted with the question—“How Do You Have a Civic Dialogue When Each Side Isn't Civil?”—we might be able to imagine responses other a than: “You can’t.” Indeed, we might be able to imagine this alternative response: “You keep reframing your ideas in ways that help other sides hear you, and you share that burden because no one person or institution can do it 24/7.”
This response is not particularly new, nor does it ensure success. But it is worth reconsidering because it offers an alternative cultural logic, which unpacks as follows: If you keep alive the idea of reframing your ideas, then you also keep alive the possibility of success. One effect of this alternative cultural logic is that we keep trying to talk with others. A corollary effect is that we may remain willing to listen. An intentional willingness to listen rhetorically is important because hearers assume the possibility of success and a belief in agency and hope.
Belief … possibility … agency—these tropes are endemic to rhetoric. And hope—that trope is endemic to feminism. So just imagine the potential power that undergirds feminist rhetorics.
Linking the tropes of belief, possibility, agency, and hope has the potential to redefine the following rhetorical stances:
(1) Personal Rigidification can be reimagined not as the inevitable status quo but rather as a point on a continuum . . . with the another point being Personal Openness.
(2) Cultural Rigidification can be seen not as an inevitable status quo but rather as a point on a continuum . . . with another point being Cultural Openness.
(3) Defeatism can give way to Hope.
(4) Nihilism can give way to Hope.
(5) Despair can give way to Hope.
(6) War, please God, can give way to Peace.
Such claims resonate naively in today’s world, don’t they? But perhaps, instead of succumbing to postmodern skepticism, we ought to embrace postmodern possibilities—specifically, the ways that people can redefine tropes, as well as change people’s minds, lives, and worlds.
In the article, I plan to demonstrate this claim by invoking case studies from around the world, where race and gender and nationality and class intersect in the performance of belief, possibility, agency and hope. These case studies serve several purposes: to broaden readers/listeners knowledge of the world, to broaden rhetorical theorists ideas of effective tactics related to rhetorical listening across differences, to demonstrate the importance of analyzing rhetorical tactics, such as rhetorical listening, within particular historical/cultural sites, etc.
But for this blog, I’ll simply conclude by saying that the work toward accomplishing the above rhetorical stances may be never-ending. That fact does not render the work useless. Rather, it makes the work even more imperative. It reminds us [remember Mary Daly’s pronoun pronouncement] of what it means to be human … that is, what it means to be human beings who are all both similar and different.