Hello from my office (at home that is),
It is almost 10:30 in the evening and I am beginning a new post. First that is abnormally late for me to begin, and I am quite sure I will not finish, but I have also just finished dinner, which is also uncharacteristically late for me because I seldom eat late at night. So how did this happen? I got my second shingles shot on Friday and it has turned me pretty upside down. It is not as much a pain thing, which is what happened the first time, but it has caused me to be lethargic, feeling run-down, and caused me more indigestion (almost like a flu) than anything I have ever experienced from a vaccination. I am not regretting the two-part process, but getting through it has not been enjoyable. So, I have taken multiple naps each day, which has thrown my entire sleep pattern out of kilter. If you thought I ran crazy hours before, it is now beyond that. One of my former students, debate and forensics team members, and generally all-round good guy texted me at about 4:00 a.m. this morning and I was awake. The student called and we spoke until after 5:00 a.m. That is not the first time someone has tried to contact me in the last week at 0-dark-thirty and I was awake to take their phone call. So as I spoke with another former Wisconsin colleague this evening while cooking dinner, we commiserated our national atmosphere and we spoke honestly and thoughtfully about where we are, trying to come to terms with both the where and the how. I am not sure that we came to any earth shattering conclusions, but we did agree that these are difficult and desperate times.
Today, in a continued thread between, and with, a former colleague classmate and me, I saw something I have realized, but finally saw it more clearly for what it is. We grew up in the same area of the state of Iowa, in terms of both in the Western third, though I was more northern and he more southern. We are similar in age, and I believe he probably grew up more affluently than I. I do not know that for sure, but knowing his family background, it is a relatively safe assumption. We have disputed a number of issues over the last few years and at one point, we were no longer connected on Facebook, and I believe I reached out to him. Since reconnecting, our conversations have been cordial at times, respectful of the other, and then in terms of politics not so much. In fact, he argues that my requirements for writing correctly, thoughtfully and carefully smack of academic elitism and that because I ask him to be clear, I am being disrespectful or unfair. As a writing professor, I guess I can argue it is an occupational hazard, but that is not really what I feel. What I do feel is something I say to my students regularly, and this is true particularly in my professional and technical writing classes. Unclear writing or communication is unethical. I believe this because it affects the person reading it and trying to make sense of it in ways that have consequence. The same can be said about argument in general. The reason – and this is often the case – there is a struggle when debating another is you are at a point of stasis. What is that? It is where you have a point where little can be accomplished because you are not really arguing the same point. For instance, let’s remember when we were younger (or if you are college age now) and your parents argued when you came back home you needed to be in the house at a certain time. Coming home, returning from college, it is always difficult to be back under the rules you were earlier in your life. So your parents tell you to be home by such and such a time. You are restricted like when you were in high school, and you believe you are beyond that. What is the rationale you use to disagree with their requirement? What is the reason they use for the requirement? Let me begin with them. After you disagree with their request, they might argue something like “as long as you live under our roof and we are paying your college tuition, you will do as we say.” Is that a valid argument? Well, no, but not for the reasons you might think. The reason it is not a valid argument is it is not an argument at all. It is a statement from a position of power, and it has nothing to do with the reason they want you home at a certain time. Likewise, if you say, I do not come home to some curfew at college, so I am old enough to not have to do it at home is also not an argument. It is you trying to exert your power. There is no winning an argument from other side because it is about power, and as parents, particularly if they are still supporting you, you do not win. But then there is that issue too. What is the purpose of an argument, it is not about winning, it is about coming to consensus. It is about the facts of something and seeing where there is commonality, where you can from a place from which to move forward. Arguments are based on fact, and in our national debate right now, there are sound-bytes, inaccurate telling of facts, and little listening to the other, regardless which side of the argument you seem to fall right now. Honest, even passionate, debate is essential at this point in our national conversation, but honest debate requires research and backing one’s self up with carefully and thoughtfully structured debate. That is time consuming, but it is beyond just necessary at the moment. The fabric of our democracy hangs in the balance. I do not believe that to be a hyperbolic statement. This past week has revealed that in an overwhelmingly desperate way. Someone sent me a video yesterday, which I guess has been making the rounds. It was the video of Ashli Babbitt,. the Air Force veteran, who was shot and died inside the Capitol. It was stunning to me. It was tragic to me. It was perhaps even life-changing for me. I have listened to some of her Twitter rants and read some of her material and I certainly do not agree with much of her political leanings, but this is a 30-something veteran who has now lost her life. I understand what she was doing was dangerous, and I believe incredibly ill-advised, but I am still devastated that a young woman died at the hands of the very law enforcement those many in that building probably believe they support. That is a pitiful irony of her death.
My college classmate wants to argue that because I come back with facts and arguments based on research that I am an elitist, and by that implies that I disrespect them. I would assert precisely the opposite. Because I believe arguments need to be challenged and any argument I put forth needs to be challenged I try to make sure that my position is based on fact, but I am simultaneously passionate about it. There are times I have had to concede points and that is what true argument accomplishes. It moves us to a place of consensus and establishes a position from which all involved believe they were heard and valued. It is always difficult to admit when you are passionate about something that you are misguided or misinformed, but that is because we have been trained to win at all costs. Independence is not about winning and neither is individualism. Independence comes at a high cost, but that is what democracy allows. Individualism is based on support of the collective whole as well as the trust that individualism does not erode the collective good. There are a number of ironies that are inherent in the struggle we are currently engaged in as a country. I also realize that is from my viewpoint, and there are many who will disagree with me. I continue to struggle with the reality of last week’s Capitol siege, but I struggle with the aftermath as well. And that is on a number of levels. Currently, my thoughts about the reason it occurred are all over the place, and I am not currently willing to put that into writing. I need to keep thinking and listening to both sides. Just as importantly, where we go now is just as muddled for me. I understand the validity to some extent in almost every argument that is currently posited in terms of what is the best course of action in the next 10 days, the next 100 days, the next four years, and the list could go on, While I have never been interested in political office, I am surely not interested now. My heart goes out to anyone who must deal with the consequences of last Wednesday.
It was not lost on me that it was the actual day of Epiphany when all of this occurred. The day where light shown into the darkness. Nothing could be more accurate. There is a darkness in our nation and there is a hatred that we are all guilty of, that is not a political thing, it is a human thing that uses politics to express it. I have read pretty vociferously since last week and I made myself read Newsmax to understand more from those I do not generally hear from. It was an important thing for me to do. I have read FoxNews for some time, because I enjoy reading it? NO, but I need to read, listen and think. I read things from people I respect and have known for years, but I wonder how they are where they are, and I believe they probably think the same of me, but as I noted in my last post, it is imperative that we find out individually how to listen to the other and be willing to engage. Argument and debate are fundamental to democracy, but respect and decency are foundational to being able to argue or debate. How have we become so disrespectful and hateful? That is not as difficult a question as one might think. If one feels disenfranchised, devalued, disrespected, and ignored, they become angry. They believe they have little to lose in their vitriol. However, none of us are righteous enough to believe we have the moral high ground for some righteous indignation. None of us. What I learned as a student at a number of levels, undergraduate, seminary, or working on a PhD is the more I knew the more I realized I do not know. There is so much more to any argument that what is initially revealed. There is so much more to the other side than we are generally willing to hear. We are in a difficult position as a country. That is true. We are divided in ways perhaps not as extreme since the election of 1860. Abraham Lincoln faced an untenable choice in his desire to preserve the Union. His standing on principle split the country and a Civil War ensued. And yet, we know, and at least I hope we know, that was the correct choice. Some images from this past week are evidence that not everyone agrees, and more accurately, they never have. My classmate identified as a white nationalist today, rather than disagree with them, I asked what they believed that identification meant or implied? I asked the consequences of that identification. I want them to come to terms with that moniker. I know what I believe, and I am quite sure I know what many of my Black, Latino/a, or Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, Bengali, or Turkish students might respond. My whiteness gives me privilege, but it does not give me the right to abuse that privilege. In fact, I will argue it gives me more responsibility to be fair because I am afforded things undeserved because of my skin color. I will assert there has not been a more profound moment in my life to speak out on behalf of those who are not given privilege for no other reason than they do not fall into the place of privilege.
I believe we need debate; we need heart-wrenching soul searching. I watched a number of videos today of arrests all over the country in response to last week’s events. Again, the irony of law and order arguments as they were on the receiving end of that were quite stunning. It cannot be swept away with all the other things left behind that 5 people died in the process of that day and the next. It should not be ignored that a veteran of the Capitol Police took his life later that week. The video of the black police officer allowing himself to be chased up flights of steps to lead them away from an unguarded door should not be ignored. There are numerous people who were heroes that day, and that cannot be argued. We will never know most of it. The argument of who we are and what we have become is certainly up for debate, but as important is the debate of who we want to be, who we hope to become from all of this. I know there are good people on both sides of this political divide. And while we are divided, I believe there are many more of us, regardless of party who hurt deeply by what is happening. It is time for all of us to listen first, ponder and then try to figure out a way forward that includes the greatest number of people working for the greatest good. It is not an easy task, but it is a worthy one. I am reminded of the Prayer of St, Francis and its significance for now is palpable.
I wish you all peace and comfort in this difficult time.
One thought on “Why argument/debate/questions are crucial”
I hope it may be useful, to yourself and others, that I address some of your thoughts, as some of them have grown timely once again as Donald Trump faces serious, looming legal battles in the coming months. Awareness of these matters and of the public perception regarding them is critical for people who wish to partake in any sort of meaningful, thoughtful public discourse. I suppose we might suggest that the nature and means of discourse is changing, but I’d like to save that discussion for another time.
Common consensus, at least jokingly, seems to be that discussions about religion and politics are best when in the company of dear friends and aspiring enemies. My own personal experience has taught me that open discussions of political views tend to become heated very quickly, even if one’s conversation partner is entirely in agreement. Many more people seem to prefer to aggressively abstain from such discussions, and one might jeopardizing an otherwise healthy friendship just for broaching the subject. It would seem that not only are the emotions too great when discussing politics (for many people), but they also cannot be easily isolated from the subject matter. I think you, as a student and teacher of rhetoric, would no doubt agree that this is troubling if accurate.
You had mentioned in your second paragraph the discussion you had with your former classmate. What stood out to me was your question regarding purpose. Specifically, you contrasted winning and consensus. I believe we can see these two rhetorical underpinnings play out in Washington routinely, and it’s not uncommon to see a parallel among people who represent similar ideologies in the general public. I dislike generalities, but it does seem to me that many individuals aligned with the insurrection view winning as an end in itself and not merely a means to an end. It seems vaguely Machiavellian, and the rhetorical strategies in their employ, I think, are indicative of that. That’s why fallacies, disinformation, redirection, and obfuscation have become so commonplace – the goal is to win, for that is the end and not merely a means to a greater end. Not usually, anyway. The vindictive, sometimes explicitly violent language employed is also of note.
But, as you observe in your final paragraph, there are likely good people among this group. As a pastor and a pious man, I’ve no doubt you’ve grappled with the fact that good people can become corrupted. I’ve seen some of these individuals, having left this movement behind, express regret. They have a desire to do good, to affect positive change for the country, but they are simply swept up in the quasi-religious, nationalistic discourse that surrounds the movement. They feel the sense of connection and the sense of purpose it brings them, and this gives their lives meaning.
But what should we do with them? History has some terrible examples of how a failure to reintegrate a divided people can cause future mayhem. In some ways, it’s partially responsible for our nation’s current troubles. Conversely, self-righteous vengeance is dangerous for its own reasons. Tomes are awash with such stories, but their numerosity shouldn’t detract from their grisliness.
I cannot say what will mend our wounds, as a nation, and allow us to reunify. Frankly, I fear that moneyed interests and a deep-seated lust for power are core ideologies at the heart of (at least) one of our modern political parties, and I fear that whatever tempered voices of reason remain within its power structure have been either completely removed or rendered impotent. Worse still, I fear that this has gotten worse in the nearly two and a half years since your post. I am unsure what we, as average citizens, can do in such dire times.