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.

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • dirkusa says:

    Hopefully the day is coming where we no longer discuss the ‘life’ of rhetoric/concepts apart from context/embodiment and this picture is a good illustration of what would have been lost in a written report consisting merely of words said (or even in other academic contexts formal position papers). And surely by attacking people we just make them defensive, but on the other hand was such a forum really going to change any minds (or even bring much informed clarity to the particulars involved), or was it just another occasion for people to confirm their place in the social order in a time of negative intensity? Where and how will we learn to develop the social skills needed to avoid our habitual cognitive biases (including those that we have sublimated with formal education)?

  • dhawhee says:

    dirkusa: i like that last question in particular. as one of the organizers of the flash forum, i will just say that we were simply looking to provide a place for people to gather and talk/think about the arguments and issues arising from the shootings in Tucson, and to resist the highly organized, more typical conference-mode that academics often take, that are often planned for a distant future when issues have died down or taken new and different turns.
    it was by no means perfect, and i would do a few things differently if we do this again. but i will say that a number of attendees came up to me afterward with extra questions and seeking more information, which suggests to me that a few left with something more to think and talk about.
    and the fact that we had two very distinctive models of disagreement from the student population also provided an opportunity for people to see democratic deliberation in action. speaking of embodied learning! the two incidents, as chris suggests, provided a lesson in manner over matter that would (as your remarks about the photo suggest) likely be rendered flat and lifeless in, say, a textbook.

  • dirkusa says:

    dhawheel, how did you folks decide what arguments/issues were related to the shooting, was this someone’s academic specialty, were the students made part of this process of inquiry (if there was one and not just a forum for expressing opinions/speculation). What made such a forum different from tv talk news? While ‘civility’ is obviously desirable one can just watch the PBS news hour to see people talking AT each other while being polite. Is education just about exposing people to differing opinions?

  • DEBRA HAWHEE says:

    well, since we are the Center for Democratic Deliberation, we began with the arguments circulating about language and modes of deliberation in the U.S. these days. (We were not, I’ll stress, interested in pinning the blame for the shooting on words or images people use, just in exploring the ways different issues overlap.) But in locating speakers who might have something to say about the matter, of course the issues started to layer on–policy issues (e.g., guns), historical issues (e.g., community vs. individual), etc. And once the audience jumped in–here is where I would have wanted to restructure for more audience involvement–we had conversations about mental illness and the concerning ease with which the whole event is dismissed as “the work of a nutjob.”
    A number of students from an introductory course on in the Liberal Arts (called “Rhetoric and Civic Life”) attended. The goals of this course align with the kind of critical thinking and engagement that the NYT article you posted gives a brief positive mention. My hope is that several of those students are continuing and changing the conversations on their course blogs.

  • dirkusa says:

    just so I’m clear were you discussing the fact that one of the reactions to this tragedy was a discussion of public rhetoric of were you (all) assuming some connection?
    My broader concern is about the authority/role of academics, we do not make people professors because they are experts at “thinking” in general, or b/c they are smart or wise, but because (I think) of their research skills. My question is how these skills are connected to their public roles as educators and speakers, and more specifically if these skills are in use, on display, in teaching and speaking. To my mind the hardest part of research/understanding (or any reflective expertise) is the problem of framing (which requires a mastery of methodology but is not reducible to it, not a question of being a technician), of the fit or not of a subject to one’s discipline and the ways in which subjects/events might be outside of, or require a change in one’s methods. Where do student’s come to be exposed to such practices, to gain such discipline/skills, to grapple with complexity and the unknown, to sort out what problems/experiences would benefit from research and which just have to be lived with/through? Otherwise more talk, more forums/modes, is just more, no?

  • Ross Wolfe says:

    Left-wing ideologues? The student accusing the panelists of being left-wing ideologues has no idea how deluded he really is. But then again, I doubt that anyone on this blog knows why this would be such a ridiculous statement to begin with. The sad truth is that the Left has been dead in America for longer than it has been nearly anywhere else; for generations at least. I wouldn’t even say that the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s even approached anything adequate to the true concept of the Left. The so-called “post-ideological” Left of the 1980s and beyond would be more aptly called the “postmortem” Left, since it’s basically just become a constituency of the Democratic party, only capable of imagining a more pluralistic version of the society we already have.

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