This image captures a poignant moment in the Flash Forum in Response to the Arizona Shootings held by the Center for Democratic Deliberation on January 21 at Penn State. The panelists are listening to a student accuse them of being irrational left wing ideologues who are attempting to blame right wing rhetoric for the shootings.
The image, which I captured with my iPhone, bears reflecting upon because it displays a the range of expressions that suggest something important about the emotional dimension endemic to all political communication. Each member of the panel has a slightly different look that range from skeptical amusement, to inchoate anger, to concerned disbelief.
As a member of the audience, my heart began to beat a bit faster as I listened to the belligerent tenor of the comment. Plato identified the affection of the soul operative in such situations as thumos, or spirited desire, and he intentionally placed Socrates in situations in which he faced and had to respond to such spirited interlocutors–Thrasymachus in the Republic and Callices in the Gorgias to name the two most famous.
From my perspective, the most interesting and important dimension of the exchange was this: whatever validity this student had in accusing the panel of a left leaning bias was lost by the agonistic manner in which he presented his position. His rhetoric was designed to shame and dominate rather than to question and deliberate. The panel did a nice job of undermining this rhetorical strategy. But the performance of a kind of political speech that erodes the possibility of common understanding served as a very powerful object lesson about how we talk to one another politically.
I was left thinking about how we model political communication in our classrooms and in our lives. When we disagree most vehemently, thumos overtakes us and clouds precisely those capacities we most need for deliberation and understanding: generosity, humility and critical reflection – to name just three.
It was heartening, then, to hear a second student take up the right wing perspective later in the conversation in a more respectful and thoughtful mode. He posed some hard questions that invited us to think further about our own ways of framing the issue, and he did it in a conscientious and considerate way. Professor Hawhee rightly paused at the end to positively reinforce the manner in which he formulated his position.
Sometimes deliberation depends less on what we say than it does on how we say it.