Hello on a hot September day from the Acre,
It seems that the daily news has done a great deal to separate who we are as a society and it is easy to blame the news, and that goes across the spectrum. One of the things I tell my students regularly is simply this: all news is biased. That is reality. Someone is paying for that particular outlet to continue to broadcast. They are beholden to their stakeholders, their primary financial landlines. While NPR is the only public system, there is still a bias. The struggle becomes how it is possible to find the closest thing to truth in the cacophony of completing voices? It requires listening to multiple voices; it requires a willingness to listen to things that make you uncomfortable. This is seldom something that we enjoy, and in these disparate times it seems we simply refuse to do so. However, there is a consequence for our failure to listen to, ponder over, imagine the truth in things we would rather not hear.
Argument is nothing new; it is also not problematic when argument arises, regardless the argument. I know that is, perhaps, a statement that most will struggle to accept, but much of that is because for most, the goal of their argument is the foundational problem. When I teach argumentation, one of the questions I ask my students,”What is the goal of an argument? Without exception, someone will answer “to win.” That is a common answer; it is a common perception about argumentation in general. It is, for the most part, how we are enculturated. Most importantly, it is wrong. First, it is because we see argument as something negative, and second, too often the way people argue it to attack personally (and that has become more the rule than the exception). Furthermore, all argument is based on reason, which implies that all argument has a fundamental principle of using logic (logos) and language (again logos) that functions in a logical manner. Imagine a scenario in your life – and most all of us have been in this situation – where you are arguing with someone about something. And the argument has disintegrated because it seems there is no possible mutually agreeable result. Now you begin hollering at the other and this continues; and not surprisingly it escalates, but you realize you are no longer sure what your initial point was. At that point it is no longer really an argument, but has evolved, and often fallen apart. It is now a shouting match. Instead of using logic or language, we have transformed this interaction to an emotional confrontation. Generally any logic or reason is overshadowed by the passion of the moment. This is not to assert that you should be passionless about a position that evolves strong feelings, but when pathos overtakes logos, many times the result is less than ideal. The propensity for us to fall into the trap of passion as we assert options in our current hyper-polarized world is well beyond likely. The need for either side to jump when the other gets a little testy or push boundaries seems to be the action du jour.
I will agree that our President has a particular rhetorical strategy he (and he is incredibly effective at) employs. It is not difficult to see if one will simply step back and observe. It is a divide and conquer. While we were polarized before President Trump was elected, it does not take unparalleled powers of observation to see that polarization has been put on steroids. The passion or disdain for all things Washingtonian was well into its adolescence before the 2016 election. What has happened since has moved it from something still coming into its own to a full-blown cultural phenomenon. There is no adolescence at this point. This is the equivalent of being an olympic athlete. Polarization is foundational to our national fabric at this point. Anything governmental currently evokes such rage (ironically the title of Bob Woodward’s just released book) or fury that many find it impossible to have any type of civility when our national status becomes a discussion point. It doesn’t matter if it is what used to be (pre-pandemic, that is) the water cooler conversation, the latest post to social media, or now, even a comment about the day’s events (which are crazier by the hour), the potential for a struggle, which more often than not is a stasis point, the consequence is going to most certainly less than ideal.
I am amazed how people now feel the need to either rattle that infamous big-dog’s cage, or we try to tip-toe around issues that should be discussed. This all or nothing mentality means things that are appropriate to discuss, even when they are uncomfortable, results in tip-toeing around the obvious issues that plague us (pun intended). I too have posted some things that have pushed limits, and I will apologize that I could have used better judgment. The desire for something better on a number of levels sometimes fires me up and my passion gets in front of my brain. It is part of my human failings, of which there are certainly more than one. What creates more difficulties than most anything is when we lose respect, or an openness, for the other: the other person, the other opinion, the other possibility, the other faith, the other gender (or cis-gendered and all identification – and before you jump on me for this liberal bias, I wish my sisters (three of them, who were/are lesbian) could have been treated more fairly in their lives. Again, just this week I found myself frustrated with people who could not follow arrows in a store to help maintain social distancing. When I stood there staring at the four, because I had no place to go (perhaps I could have backed my way out of the aisle, but I was trying to get my errand done and leave), they stared back. When I pointed to the arrows on the floor, the college student said in a dismissive tone, “I don’t think it really matters.” I responded calmly, but still staring, “I think it probably does.” The second student then told me, I needed to be six feet away from them. Now, ponder this: if they had not come the wrong way down the aisle, the social distancing would have never been a issue. I wanted to say this, but it was evident there was little I could say that would not merely elevate an already problematic situation. If I had continued to argue, I am sure a cell phone would have come out to capture whatever occurred and nothing positive would come of that. So I merely walked away.
While I was fuming, I needed to let it go. They did not care about their missteps because they clearly stated it did not matter. When the student then noted the social distance issue, that was a red herring and there was nothing to do with his line of reasoning. Simply: he was being a jerk and trying to assert some sort of power in a situation where they, while in the wrong, desired no accountability for their actions. My students know this about me quite well. There are three things that will cause me to respond with some passion: dishonesty, disrespect, and abuse of power. The first erodes trust; the second creates walls between individuals, and the third takes advantage of the other. Why do they know? Because when I teach argumentation I note these things. All this aside, what seems to be at issue for so many right now is the idea of individual rights and freedom. While there is much to be said about both things, there are a couple of points I believe worth raising. First, the interconnectivity of the global health crisis on things like the supply chain, the job market, the stock market, on international travel, on global companies interaction with their foreign offices, on retail and the consequence of closing stores, restaurants, bars, as well as the increasing and staggering numbers of infected people or people dying, is profound, and what has happened globally in only 6 months or so has most of us reeling. As someone in higher education, I know that everything occurring right now in the academy is antithetical to what students are to experience as they go away to attend the university for the first time. I know that what we did when we were told to show caution at 18 is really no different than what students are doing now. However, there is a difference: what we did might have gotten us in trouble, our hands slapped, or perhaps some misdemeanor police record. The lack of caution now, by anyone, not just the college student, can be possibly long-term debilitating, or worse, it can be lethal, either to the infected or the people infected by them. Anton, my exchange student was sent home early, but it was weeks, if not months before he saw his grandparents in person. While he wanted to see them, he recounted it to me like this, “I want to see them, but I do not want to kill them. I’ll wait.” He was able to demonstrate that patience, even after being in the United States for 7 months. That is impressive and just how selfless he is. I still miss having him here. This time last year we were trying to get it all figured out. He was barely here, but he had finished his first week of classes successfully. He could find his classes; he was making friends; he received band magnets, snapchat addresses, and phone numbers; and he already had six girls wanting to go to dinner with the Danish boy before Homecoming. Quite successful, I would say.
I am quite sure of two things at this point: regardless who we elect in November, the virus will still be here, and probably co-mingling with this year’s version of whatever the yearly influenza will be. Second, the polarization that is hyper-manic in this country right now will not suddenly disappear. There is much more about this I could say, and I certainly think, but suffice it to say, it would be more partisan than I care to be. This is not to say I am avoiding, but rather it is not the purpose of my blog, and as I have noted with, particularly, my Technical Writing students on almost a daily basis: audience and purpose is where you must begin to understand your rhetorical situation and how to create documentation that works. What I do hope and pray is somehow we can believe that where we are currently is not a good path. Division, dissension, anger as well as bullying, lying, and villianizing the other does not serve our local, national, or global interest. If we are going to provide a world that offers a place where all honestly have some opportunity, it is all connected. We are, to use the Biblical adage, our other’s keeper. We are interconnected, and when we work for the betterment of all, freedom can occur. It is not a political freedom; it is not an economic freedom; it is not an educational freedom; it is a freedom of the spirit. It is the belief and practice the all people have value, regardless their differences. Certainly, some will argue this is my liberal idealism. Some will say I am pollyannaish. No, I believe it takes me back to my days as a parish pastor. Whatever you do to the least of these . . . It matters to me. It would be easy to be angry and shout, and God knows, there are times. Yet, I want to believe I have been blessed to be a blessing. Sometimes I fall; but most often, I merely try to make someone think, ponder, and maybe see something a bit differently. That is my goal.
It is my identity if you will. As always, thanks for reading. Please stay safe and well.