Sunday, March 23, 2014

Is Rhetoric Overrated?

As an English professor who teaches mostly composition classes, I am constantly urging my students to think in terms of argument and persuasion. How is your writing going to get your reader to accept your position on this issue as the best one? How can you convince your audience that you are right and that those who disagree with you are wrong? But frequently I wonder if thesis-driven, rhetorical writing really deserves its central place in college classrooms.

Of course I see the benefits of it. Being able to articulate one's ideas clearly and forcefully can be an empowering skill. But is something lost when we teach students to view a "counterargument" only as that-which-must-be-logically-dismantled-in-order-to-prove-one's-own-point, rather than what it is: another person's legitimate point-of-view? Granted, more sophisticated rhetorical pedagogies do just that. Respecting opposing viewpoints and taking them seriously is, itself, a sign of persuasive writing. But should our underlying goal always be to persuade?

Recently, while listening to a podcast of one of my favorite radio shows, Jonathan Goldstein's Wiretap, I heard a "conflict resolution expert" by the name of Misha Glouberman speak about how trivial disagreements between people can transform into ugly, prolonged feuds precisely because both parties become fixated on proving that they are right. I instantly recognized that I am super-guilty of this myself. At times, I exhibit a compulsive and obnoxious need to demonstrate my rightness when caught in the midst of a debate, big or small. It's one of my ugliest character traits, and I try my best (though often fail) to keep it in check. For the first time, while listening to this podcast, I began to wonder if this is actually a result of making rhetoric such an important part of the way I write and think. After all, this is a character flaw which I undoubtedly share with a lot of other people in my line of work.

Glouberman went on to make a great point about how a firm commitment to proving your "rightness" in a dispute almost never works, precisely because that is what your "opponent" is trying to do as well. The result is stubborn entrenchment and divisiveness, rather than resolution or enhanced understanding. You are wrong and stupid and that's all there is to it; I'm not going to waste my time discussing this with you any further. Such an attitude is a critical failure precisely because it is incapable of being self-critical.

So what would it mean to teach writing as a means not just for "persuading your reader" or for "argument," but to teach writing as a means of resolving conflict? What if we presented more writing contexts in which the goal was a search for common ground or a negotiated settlement rather than a validation of the writer's thesis? What if the goal was not to prove what we already believe to be true, but to explore how others see the world differently--and sometimes more clearly--than we do? I'm not sure, but I'm interested in brainstorming ways to ask my students (and myself!) to do just that.

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