Argumentation and Star Trek

Surfing around this morning and discovered that the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Measure of a Man” has it’s 30th anniversary today! I feel pretty old.

Here’s a great article talking about the history of the episode and its production.

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In this episode, Starfleet has a hearing to determine if Data has rights. He’s about to be considered the property of Starfleet so a robotics expert can disassemble him and build more Datas to serve on the entire fleet.

Data decides to resign from Starfleet to avoid being disassembled as he doesn’t feel the robotics expert will be competent enough to reassemble him.

This sparks a hearing where an admiral appoints Riker to advocate for Starfleet against Data. Picard advocates for Data. I guess Starfleet doesn’t have JAGS? Or maybe everyone has a legal education in Starfleet?

Anyway, this episode I used for years upon years in argumentation courses. Watching the way the arguments are made, the way evidence is presented, and how the two characters try to persuade the judge is burned into my memory. It was a fun time. I even used it here at St. John’s for a few years, but haven’t done so in a long time.

The episode is good to show to students as it’s very disconnected from the familiar. Many of them haven’t seen much of Star Trek of any kind, and the topic - whether an artificial intelligence has rights - is one that seems somewhat fantastical, which is good for pushing creativity among students (they don’t get much of a chance for it at any point in schooling).

It might be time to show this episode again in class as this is the generation that will have to face this question for real: Does an artificial intelligence enjoy the same rights to self-determination and choice as a human being would?

I’m wary of using entertainment media to teach these concepts, but this premise is one where we can really mine out some “equipment for living” in Burke’s phrasing. The question is still an open one even given the entire argument of both sides. Students can use it to generate their own arguments about the issue and bring up conceptions of the case that did not appear in the episode.

Maybe I should return to this in the classroom and see what happens.

Note Taking

I used to use Microsoft OneNote a ton to take notes and save clips of things, but since I now am using my new Pixelbook more and more (it’s what I’m typing on now) for everyday tasks, Google Keep is my go to for saving stuff I want to write about or think about later on.

It’s so strange. Google Keep is far too simple. It’s a web based clipper of URLS, images, and lists. It doesn’t have nearly the features of OneNote, but it’s so quick and easy to use I just keep clicking on it to save stuff. Plus on a chromebook you are imbedded in the web anyway, so I think that makes me perceive that things are going faster.

Also I just take notes now in Google Docs and it’s helping me remember stuff a lot better, and create a lot more. I think that I’ve reached a point where direct and simple are more important than a bunch of features that I might use someday. OneNote is still amazing, but for some reason I just don’t really go back to it and poke around. When I feel like I want to do some writing that’s not connected to a project that I’m already into, I just open keep and poke around.

Of course I have many notebooks - drawers and drawers of them - which is my preferred way to write when in transit. Now the pixelbook’s big advantage is that it fits perfectly and comfortably on the tray of an airplane seat. It’s quite literally the best airplane computer I’ve ever seen, even better than an iPad with a keyboard case. I’ve tried everything, and this one is super great. It doesn’t feel like you are going to break the tray either. It just works perfectly and feels comfortable.

But if you don’t want to have the tray out, the notebook does fine. I always have a Muji pen or a uniball pen as those are cheap, but they move fast, they seem to not mush up your thoughts or reactions as you go, like slower pens will do. The best way to test out what you’d like to write with or on is to subscribe to ScribeDelivery which is a blind-box for notebooks and pens. I’ve learned a lot about my analog writing desires and process from them. And here in New York, being on a bus or a subway always gets me thinking about writing, so I want to have something to jot things down on.

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I don’t like tiny notebooks; I really don’t have a lot of hates, but I really do hate the smallest Moleskine notebooks. They are just so rigid and bulky and the pages never sit right when you try to use them on the go. This is my current notebook that I bought in Japan at a museum gift shop. It’s perfect, plus it has that great Japanese paper, not sure what it’s called, but it has a great feeling and the ink doesn’t bleed off of it. I got another one after I opened the one I bought and tried it out so I wouldn’t run out. It’s doing pretty well so far, mostly because Google Keep is slowly encroaching on my paper notebook habits.

Keep is great for taking pictures of books and book reviews so I know what to read next. I’ve found myself slipping into the habit of taking pictures of paragraphs - something I’ve seen students do on social media - instead of writing the quote out or typing it out. I wonder how this experience with note taking changes the relationship we’d have with the note. Is it better to write it out? I have notebooks full of paragraphs I wrote out in the library because I didn’t have a laptop, or my laptop’s battery was so bad that it would not be possible to sit there with it for hours pouring over books. But the pixelbook regularly will go 8 to 10 hours without the charger. I’m just typing after all, nothing very battery intensive. But these devices seem to have the technology to where we could type out quotes and notes fairly easily. I wonder why I take photos more often then? Keep is becoming my go-to place for keeping lists of books to buy is part of it too. Easier than the old notebooks.

Yet still this semester I stopped using Google Calendar so much and have a Moleskine planner, which I love filling up with tasks. Perhaps this is all a big, slowly moving circle or something where things trade off with one another based on what I’m thinking and feeling. Or maybe there’s a process underneath that determines it based on what I’m writing about or working on.

Bird Box and Rhetoric

The movie Bird Box got a ton of attention over December and I happened to watch it as well. I thought about it for a while after I saw it and decided to try to write a paper about its connection to the contemporary political situation and how we think about rhetoric.

I gave this paper as a talk during our brown bag series that the rhetoric & communication department do every semester. I think it went pretty well.

After the failure of the GoPro 7 to record less than 15 minutes in any one go, I decided to use the old handycam again. So this was shot on a now 12 year old Handycam with a wide angle lens and a zoom mic. It turned out pretty good I think considering the age of everything involved.

I usually use Wondershare Filmora to edit my videos, but it kept crashing, so I used Cyberlink Power Director 14 instead, which was great. It crashed a lot too, so I had to use my laptop to render it but it was super fast once I got all the video transferred over. The Handycam uses this weird compression format called AVCHD which takes some special effort on the part of the editing software to decode.Glad I got it figured out as this is a nice camera (and my only option really) for recording my more long-form stuff I do.


Another Semester of Public Speaking

Public speaking, the class everyone must take at University (with a few exceptions such as being at an Ivy League, or being in a very professional-oriented degree) is my new life. It looks like for the foreseeable future it’s all I’ll teach. This is good as it’s all I pretty much want to teach. There are a lot of possibilities within this class, it’s status as a requirement, and its status as a core-curriculum “sacred cow” that makes it interesting. I really can’t believe how little this class has been used to empower speech, rhetoric, and communication departments in the U.S.

Instructors aren’t connecting the dots very well. It wasn’t that long ago that composition was a very small, very ignored corner of the English department, where literature was king, and writing just to study writing was so low that even the MFA program was seen as more legitimate. Now it’s impossible to imagine a campus without a writing center, writing in the disciplines, writing across the curriculum, etc. Now it’s amazing every time I hear a University official talk about how everyone has a responsibility to teach writing.

The same should be true of speech, but we teach only simple modality in our courses. Public speaking textbooks exist, which is a huge problem. There are so many amazing things to read about, study, and present about that there really shouldn’t be a need for a public speaking book. Teaching people form of public address is to miss the wonderful opportunity to get them interested and motivated to read good works about ideas and topics they really love.

That research benefit goes with a confidence benefit in the art of presentation, particularly because they have a stake in whatever it is that they are speaking about instead of it being randomly assigned by some instructor, or some topic that is “reserved” for class speeches. Speaking centers would be a great addition to writing centers as places where students could get assistance and help developing what they’d like to say instead of being graded on whether they can “find the thesis” of a speech.

The absolute poverty of what we teach was revealed to be very starkly last week during an assessment meeting, where the pre-test to be given to students had them locate a thesis statement. How is this helpful? How does this help them come up with what to say to convince others that they are right? How does this help a person marshall the right words when the stakes are high and the disagreement is everywhere?

Assessment might be impossible for public speaking in a way that satisfies the Dean’s office bureaucrats who want the right form filled out the right way in the right folder so they can go home at the right time. A performance assessment might be better for public speaking, just to see if we can see the attempt to connect to audience, establish a position, and show the audience that this position is a reasonable, if not the best position, to take on a question.

I’m very worried that students don’t know how to do this, and are instead learning a “courtly” rhetoric, where they learn how to follow the rules to say something that pleases power. As Sacvan Bercovitch pointed out years ago, American society even agrees on what dissent should look like. There’s a cultural practice of consensual dissent defining what it means to be recognizably against. Awareness of this, and the awareness of engagement in structures of power distribution, or awareness of human motives and how they are accounted, seems essential and at the very least, more valuable than rule-following for the construction of messages. Following the expected rules of a speech is one thing, but following them in order to gain adherence from an audience is quite another.

To this end, I’ve started playing around with various controversiae and declamation topics from Rome, updating them to suit the modern day. I tried this out on Friday, and it went pretty well. What was most interesting about it was that the class I have that is younger students, mostly first or second year in college, were very much into it and very excited about doing it. The other class with mostly juniors and seniors was not into it at all, and seemed to resent my disruption of their passive existence in the classroom. It might sound like I’m blaming them here, but I feel that this is a survival strategy that comes from having numerous professors who just want attention and a space to talk rather than a space to engage with others in practice.

The Ancient Roman curriculum recognized the need for practice to happen to get a grip on how and why commonplaces worked (or didn’t). To theorize in action the audience reacting to an appeal as it unfolds over time (praxis, in rhetoric at least). And to indicate the existence of perspective and ideology in every account we can give of a situation and the need to judge/move/or act on it (narrative). These are three things that I think could be assessed through performance, but again, this is something that would be too difficult to do since assessment is more of a “I’m doing my job” thing rather than an authentic exploration of what students are becoming through study.

More posts to come about my declamation experiment - I’m always thinking about and composing them which is super weird, but it’s a good time. I think that the crafting of these declamation exercises is really good for the mind, which is why I like to work on them anytime my mind drifts. Creating the possibilities of rhetorical response is also rhetorical, and very healthy as it reminds us that there are numerous ways to be within society and the world. We don’t have a grasp of that at all, but we do like to universalize our own experiences. Public speaking is the art of keeping that from happening by showing how powerful and attractive it is to be trapped hopelessly in perspective, but a perspective that makes politics possible.



State of the Union 2019

Should we boycott the State of the Union, even if we feel that the President is a reprehensible person or a terrible figure?

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I don’t agree with not listening to it at all. I think that the speech is meant to be an address to Congress by the way the law is written. But clever rhetoricians cannot avoid writing it by thinking about it as eavesdropping - being allowed to see an event that you are not invited to. Being able to hear and see what two giant forces in governing do when they meet. People who watch it might interpolate themselves as seeing something that is elite and closed-door in a way. Writing the speech this way allows for some powerful rhetorical moves to influence the people under the guise of, or in the name of, asking the Congress to do something or (more powerfully) for help.

But the more reasonable and mainstream read is that it’s a speech for the American people under the very thin veil that it is an address to Congress. That’s too bad, as the methods of persuasion - and the power of rhetoric - are somewhat lost in a very simple construction of a wink.

But then again, these speeches are less and less a part of rhetoric every year. Every year, they are more and more infected with the discourse of apparent truth. Presidents state claims and tell stories without any attempt to address those who might have doubts about what the President is saying.

Everything a political figure says should be questioned, which should be taken into account by the political figure, and they should attempt to make what they are saying somewhat palatable to the doubtful audience. If not, one could make what one is saying palatable to one’s own supporters - but those people are going to cheer anyway. So why just state things and not try to weave them together using reasons?

It’s strange. And maybe a reason to boycott, as the Congresswoman suggests we should. But I think that one of the best things about public political discourse is riffing off of it. We use these speeches and addresses - including the terrible Presidential debates - as platforms to reach other people with our political beliefs and ideas. For that reason I think it’s worth watching, just so we can base our discourse off of what was offered by the President.

So what happened?

The speech moved between rather obvious opposites and there was no surprise when the President asked the Congress to reject gridlock for it’s natural and obvious opposite, greatness. The first third of the speech was pretty bad, pretty simplistic, and seemed to be the way you’d start a speech if you just sat down to write it in order without thinking it through.

I wonder why the President never points to particularities when making claims such as the number of jobs created, the number of people no longer requiring food stamps, etc. What would it mean for the President to do a bit of work to justify these claims? It would be better if the President would try to historicize the speech a bit, instead of using words as a showcase of uncontestable truths. Everyone finds the words of a President to be contestable.

Sadly the State of the Union is not a rhetorical event because the President realizes, as does everyone in there, that all that is expected is the announcement of facts without context or explanation. I think that the National government has given up on the idea of trying to persuade, move, or invoke new ideas with this address. It is simply going to be liked or hated based on how you feel about the President.

Not the best political model to have, is it?

I also think it would be interesting for the President to not compare his work to other administrations or where we were when that President took office, but to give images of the quality of everyday life in various parts of the country, in various walks of life, that would reveal the power of the choice and the great lives that are being led due to the choices made in Washington.

It seems really odd to talk about particular policy success and say the Union is strong based on that. A more traditional rhetorical appeal would be to talk about what the Union stands for, what the principles are, and how the pieces of legislation that have gone through show consistency with these uncontroversial principles.

I think after solidifying one’s administration and one’s legislative successes as part of the norm of the United States, based on timeless principles, then you are ready to talk about what needs to happen next. I think that there should be a very clear line and very clear division between what American stands for, what has been done to continue that legacy and that greatness, and how the Congress has the power to make or break it.

It’s really vital for the President to retreat into the limits of the role when on the greatest stage provided to them, and point out that Congress is more responsible for the direction of law and policy than the President ever can be. Trump tried to do this, emphasis on tried, when he described his version of the facts as to what comes across the southern U.S. border. It just wasn’t very convincing because of what it’s saddled with. I would advise the President to be less specific here and talk about the need for security in immigration as a whole. I think that the specifics harm the larger case in this instance.

Everyone can agree that crimes should be prevented and people should not be in the country who have not completed the proper screening processes. The argument needs to be made that somehow the process and procedures can’t work right today. Perhaps a connection to the “hottest economy” claim would be a good move here. There also could be a really strong argument made here that denying legitimate immigrants access by the accident of trying to prevent these horrible crimes is justified, as good immigrants will be taken even with the strongest scrutiny.

The stories of the individuals should be used as evidence that the general approach of the administration is one that is good because it lines up on the level of principle. The argument falls apart if you use these people as evidence that a particular law is good. A principle of organization of a space will always be far more rhetorically powerful than saying, “I cleaned up this mess, and then this one.”  It’s great that these people turned their lives around and the President helped them, but he’s not getting the mileage he needs out of these powerful examples. I don’t think the family who suffered from a crime committed by an illegal immigrant was used very well. I think it needs to be infused with much more energea, the word that Quintilian used to talk about the creation of images in front of an audience. This does not have to be graphic; this could easily be the suggestion that these crimes have no pattern. But it must be done in a persuasive, haunting way.

The wall arguments were the most looked forward to I bet. I think that the argument was stretched too far. The President should have discussed simply the reduction of illegal crossings and that as the goal, since illegal crossings are primarily the source of all the dangers, all the drugs, and all the violent crime. This connection would be a powerful one and also help with the creation of the image of the policy he wants in the minds of the listeners. Of course, this suggestion sits well with those who see the State of the Union as an address for the American people not the Congress.

The last part of the speech had a lot of interesting calls for future policy. But in the light of the weakness of the Wall portion, these parts shined. I wonder if he could have discussed these before he talked about the wall.

The other controversial topic, abortion, seemed to be a very strange transition. I think that phrasing the policy this way appealed to those who were already on his side. But it could have been said in a way that was much less direct and still clear to them what it was that they should argue for in the Congress. But this abortion policy might be a way to regain support for the administration after the disastrous wall discourse that has happened. If I were advising the President, I would suggest a much more concealed argument here. People who know will know, and those who do not know that this is about abortion, will support the idea of a life-culture, whatever that is. But why not spend more time on security and the wall?

The speech failed to thread the policies all under a rubric of security. That would have been the best way to mark the way forward here. That should have been the overall theme of the speech and a great way to connect a lot of these policy ideas in a way that made more sense, and it would surprise a lot of people to think about these initiatives under the title of security.

In the end the State of the Union more and more does not benefit from the attention of the rhetorician. It’s very debatable whether or not these are rhetorical events, or are they a simple display of facts that appear for our assent or ire. Perhaps this could be theorized as the discourse of extreme rhetorical poverty, but that is not something I am interested in doing.

One of the most cringeworthy moments of these events is when rhetoricians react in shock and dismay that hypocrisy and lies persuade people, or that people hold positions of violence and hate. Rhetoricians should not be examining fact-check, or connections to what is true. Speeches should be evaluated as attempts to way or convey perspective. Because of their nature, speeches cannot access what is true, they can convince people that their experiences are universal, or deserve to be universal.

Theorizing how to move people away from the idea that there’s a correspondence between truth and speech, and get them to accept that the only gap exists between interpretation and interpretation is a better way to evaluate policy. It would also require careful listening, as the pressure would be on the President to interpret responsibility for the data in the same style that Presidents often call upon, blame, or question the Congress.

Fallout 76 and the Lack of Creativity

The people who don’t like Fallout 76 dont’ like it for one major reason - they have to create their own story in this world. There are no characters, nobody to tell you a backstory, nobody to follow or escort on a quest where you’ll be shown the revelation of some amazing subplot or backstory.

Instead, you’ll be randomly walking through the woods and come upon a cabin with a few bottles and some gear, a corpse, maybe some scorch marks. What happened here? You and your friends discuss it. Suddenly you are attacked by a nearby creature you didn’t notice - a Yao Guai, some ghouls - and that becomes part of the story as well.

In Fallout 76, the developers gave us all the loose ends and all the starting points you could want - the responders, the Sons of Dane, the Whitespring, the Enclave - and people are upset because they have to do the creative work of putting a story together.

The goal of Vault 76 was to rebuild America, yet everyone coming out of the Vault is poorly equipped to handle that task. They want to participate in an interesting story, not write or create one.

I think that the glitches and broken promises are worth being upset about, but the rage generated by this game for a lot of people is indicative of being asked to do something that you don’t feel is your responsibility. Being given a game where you drive the primary story is not everyone’s idea of a good time. For some it feels like a rip off. To be asked to create seems like an unreasonable demand in a world where all imaginative work is colonized by ready-made entertainment, meant to be judged on its accuracy to a set of “lore” or information about a fictional world curated by people who are interested in curating such things.

Minecraft and the Fallout series couldn’t be more different, which is the genius of Fallout 76. You can build whatever you’d like, anywhere. Of course it would be great to have multiple CAMPs in different places. It seems that might have been an original idea of the developers as there are hints to it in the Atom point rewards. But this sort of game is one where you make the game what it is, the game only provides a stage or set.

The same is true for games like Eve Online and No Man’s Sky. They are both set in the vastness of space, and both have little in the way of a big story or a bunch of quests to complete. But both serve as a palette of different colors players can mess with to create a world of their own. In the case of Eve, with everyone being on the same server, there are a lot of similarities between that universe and our own, dominated by wealthy empires of traders and corporate moneymakers. In No Man’s Sky, you have a static galaxy, or galaxies, with a number of possible stories being told. The openness of No Man’s Sky has been preserved even given the very large backlash that game got from the same gamers - people who want to play as a part of a story they had no hand in designing.

I’d love to see Fallout 76 in the form that it really could have - roaming gangs of raiders looking for trouble, the rebirth of the Responders helping out those in need, creating public services for those trying to make it in the wasteland. Or even the creation of some sort of governing body to determine how resources from workshops should be distributed to the population, or perhaps an antiquer’s league always looking to trade, buy, or sell legendary weapons. There is literally no limit to what a group of creative players could make Fallout 76 into. Unfortunately, most players who hate Fallout 76 want a story they can follow, not a world to build.

No Man’s Sky had a similar path to Fallout 76 and I’m sad to think that it might follow the same path of development. Hello Games conceded a lot to the players over the last few years and although it has made the game better, things such as the Galactic Government and the organizations that sprung from a game that gave players a galaxy to play with have faded a bit. I hope Fallout 76 is able to attract a similar fan base, one willing to write what matters about the game - the lore, the missions, the point of it - based on what they would like to do in the world. Although technical issues are never fun, they are present in all games to some extent. What makes Fallout 76 a unique game is the lack of any hoops to jump through in order to advance the game. For there’s nothing to advance as you walk through the world you’ve bought into.

Not all games are for everyone. But not liking a game is different from trying to eliminate that game. This level of hatred some people have for Fallout 76 reveals how deep a nerve that has been hit here. People feel something unjust has happened because the game does not have a predictable (or really any) plot. You and your friends have to use the environment and the things you find to construct a narrative. This is really not everyone’s idea of a good time, I’ll admit it. But trying to argue that the game is a failure is something else entirely. Is creating a story with friends as a form of entertainment dead? Or is it hypercharged via technology? Perhaps we are just out of practice in the creation of narrative because all of our favorite stories get told to us too many times and too often (Spider-Man is a great example of this). If the accuracy of an original narrative is the rubric by which we judge all creativity, then games like Fallout 76 won’t make it.

Trump's Immigration Address, The Democratic Response, and Rhetorical Criticism

 

When Donald Trump speaks most of us do not want to listen, we feel annoyed or horrified by his attitudes, his policies, and his presence. Yet when he does speak, ignoring it is not an option. Being part of an audience is not as voluntary as we would assume it should be. Many times orators “audience” us by speaking in our name, about our values, or suggesting what we think or believe. More importantly, when politicians speak and make arguments they are making implicit suggestions as to how we reason, think, and feel about issues through they way they put their arguments together. What they say quite literally can be read as their understanding of what appeals to us and what our motives are.

This requires some response, even if we feel the response is too obvious to perform. Rejection cannot be silence in relation to the text. We must use the text as a point for the invention of other rhetorics, those which push against how we have been “audienced” by the rhetor.

The term “audienced” I first encountered in James Crosswhite’s book A Rhetoric of Reason. He points out that most of the time we are not consensual audience members. We are being argued at, persuaded at, and rhetoric-ed at all the time. The idea of choosing to be part of an audience must primarily come from consumerist entertainment, where we can choose to pay for or consume media. This makes sense to me as many college students feel that one of the most legitimate modes of political engagement there is is to refuse to watch or listen to media created by “problematic” people - people who have vastly different attitudes about sex, race, gender, and class than you do. This form of political protest is highly questionable. This form of protest assumes that being in an audience is a fully consensual act done willingly. But in the case of politics, our officials speak in our names all the time. Simply not consuming the discourse of the President doesn’t seem to have much impact at all.

But when we engage in Donald Trump’s rhetoric we have to consider a lot of preliminaries. What’s different about the general critique of Trump’s speeches compared to other presidents is the sheer lack of depth in this analysis, with the greater bulk of criticism and commentary going toward how few facts Trump knows, respects, or uses. Traditional Presidential rhetorical criticism is much less about factacity or correspondence to facts, and much more about models of audience and how those models are deployed by Presidents.

The problem is easy to see in the tendency of the journalist to giggle and shrug and say, “There’s never been any President like this.” This is not only to dismiss the majority of the history of the Presidency, where we simply do not know how they processed or engaged with information of a vastly different kind, time and distribution, but also to give Donald Trump a pass in his rhetoric. He is not expected to conform to normal Presidential rhetoric, he does not conform, therefore he’s fine. He’s normally abnormal. Kenneth Burke called this “gashouse piety.” He’s being correctly incorrect and most importantly to the NPR crowd, it sparks the appropriate angry/frustrated attitude. They would prefer a polite articulation of violence rather than a stupid and rude one. Pointing out how off he is does not engage why he should not be appealing, merely it shows that he is not traditional.

Neither the NPR-giggle critique nor the sharp listing of factual errors will expand possibilities of understanding why Donald Trump is speaking the way he is, or who it might be that he imagines he is addressing. Kenneth Burke: “Any articulation of reality is simultaneously a selection and deflection of reality.” Chaim Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca on the Universal Audience - all rhetors construct their messages imagining that any reasonable person who encounters them will be persuaded by them. This theory tells us little about the audience and a lot about the rhetor’s conception of who they think is out there. What realities are pushed away and which are pulled into the frame? What realities are selected for presence and amplification and which ones are cooled in the background? The gestalt created by rhetoric tells us very little about facts and truth and a ton about how the speaker positions us, who they think we are, and “what works” for convincing us.

Rhetorical criticism is a perspective that does not nail down understanding but expands potential ways to understand a text. With Presidential speeches it can reveal possibilities in the invention of the speech based on assumptions made about the audience. Are these possibilities ones we would wish to accept? Each speech a President gives (or for that matter, any elected figure) is a referendum on reasoning. Is that the sort of reasoning we wish to adopt? Is that who we are? Is this how we think and judge?

We should not be interested in the speech being bad or good, but what about it appeals to us to agree with the policy, idea, or action suggested? Sadly, most observers and commentators - even those who teach and study rhetoric - are based on a simplistic “conformity to real reality” test. Elected official lies and deception are not new. They are usually not this sloppy, but they are not new. This isn’t a revelation. Criticism should hope for more. It should deliver more.

Trump’s speech and the responses by Sen. Shumer and Rep. Palosi have one very clear and totalizing common element that detracts from their appeal: Facts do not matter. They are not self-persuading, nor are they the end of a conversation or the punctuation to a claim. Facts have always been and will continue to be information with a special social status meant to generate conversation and the production of reasons and explanation. Facts generate rhetoric, they are places less like touchstones and more like flint and steel, sparking engagement. But this is dangerous if you don’t have confidence in your words. It’s also dangerous if you have no confidence in your audience’s ability to reason (read: believe me without much work).

President Trump’s address was a list of facts, a big surprise to those who expected him to speak in an impromptu manner, or off the cuff as he often does. He presented a ton of claims that I’m sure the fact-checkers enjoyed Googling:

Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border. More Americans will die from drugs this year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War.

In the last two years, ICE officers made 266,000 arrests of aliens with criminal records, including those charged or convicted of 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 violent killings. Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country, and thousands more lives will be lost if we don't act right now.

Last month, 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the United States — a dramatic increase. These children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs. One in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico. Women and children are the biggest victims, by far, of our broken system.

These claims are an obvious attempt to generate concern in the audience for “victims” of illegal immigration - women, children, and drug addicts. They are also an attempt to appeal that is quite common today, the use of startling or stunning statistics or overwhelming numbers. Trump, and the writers of this speech whoever they are, assume that this information alone should trigger the audience to want to put up a barrier or some block to stop these terrors. There is no explanation as to how this information means we require a wall and not a host of other ideas, many of which the divided audience will bring to mind without any prompting: Better border process and procedure, better advocacy with foreign governments from Mexico south, better screening processes, etc. Unfortunately anyone with even cursory rhetorical or debate training can easily defeat this information as being essential to the construction of the wall. But President Trump believes these horrifying numbers should be enough by themselves to make us want a wall, instead of perhaps a better process of vetting or including immigrants in American society in fiscal and social programs.

But this says more about the importance of a general rhetorical education imbedded in curricula rather than the dominance on STEM that makes us pretty useless in public affairs like this, particularly in the ability to judge political discourse. We can only take minor issue with the facts as the low-quality response from the CBS journalists indicated. One journalist talked about the importance of facts and how Trump “distorts” the record. His proof? That trump was about 9,000 people off in his assessment of how many minors come across the border. “Facts matter,” he concluded. How does this engagement do anything to help the audience understand whether they should agree or disagree with the President?

Most journalists are interested in reinforcing a binary to please viewers. They reinforce that binary as the only way - not even a choice - in how to view a persuasive speech from a politician. Incorrect information is not a reason to dismiss a plan. It must be explained what the bad information means. Rhetorical criticism helps us understand what model of audience and what appeals the speaker thinks will work on us. Those appeals form the basis of an ethical model of the audience members. Do we want to assent to this model or not? Are we OK being “audienced” like this?

Throughout modern history this critique has rested on a very simplistic model of whether or not the speaker’s list of facts are similar enough to our own. But there’s a much richer and deeper way to do this that is as powerful as it is ancient: Do we want to think, feel, and be citizens in the way that the speaker calls us to be? Is this who we are? Is the agency and the subjectivity constructed here adequate to how we think, feel, move, and be in the world around us? These questions were at the root of Roman rhetoric, where one’s identity as a Roman was one of the most important things that had to be kept in mind when addressing an audience. One had to be careful to marshal a vision of citizenship that did not waver from what was right and appropriate.  We are not constrained as much as the Roman orators were (thank God!). But these constraints do exist and should be taken seriously. As audienced people we have an obligation to push back against types of thinking and reasoning, constructions of how we should feel and act, and other models in a speech, implicit or explicit, that we would reject on grounds that go well beyond the particulars of the particular topic. We should be more concerned with topoi rather than whether the topic is good or bad. Are the topoi being shopped here ethical? Do they push us to be better thinkers and feelers or do they appeal to a very base model of thought and feeling? Is this who we are, is this how we think?

Donald Trump seems to believe that these numbers, and some narrative evidence about criminal behavior are enough to justify the presence of the wall and its cost. He feels no need to describe or discuss the connections between these stories of criminal behavior and the wall. We are left with the idea that illegal immigration is a big problem in relation to drugs and violent crime, disproportionately against women and children. But there’s no suggestion that we deserve any explanation as to how this is the best solution.

The border wall would very quickly pay for itself. The cost of illegal drugs exceeds $500 billion a year — vastly more than the $5.7 billion we have requested from Congress. The wall will also be paid for, indirectly, by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico.

This is an attempt at arguing for cost, but it’s full of eliding statements that equivocate, and are not worthy of our essent, even if true. The reasoning is the thing that we should identify with when we are being audienced by a speaker. If we are being made to listen, if we are being drawn into a speech as a matter of public discourse, we can’t simply ignore it or wish it would go away. We should consider it from the perspective of identification and what kind of citizen, what kind of thinker is being conjured here. Again, we are meant to assume the wall would simply work. It would stop 90% of drugs - but how? I believe that there must at least be some explanation offered as to how the information fits the judgement offered. Facts do not suggest conclusions.

The oddest moment in the speech is Trump’s appeal to understand walls as keeping loved ones safe, not because outsiders are deserving of hate. He frames this within the idea of “wealthy politician” walls and gated communities. This is a terrible choice, and accidentally makes us think that poor people are not deserving of such protection. Another comparison might have been better, such as protection of children, the vulnerable, the weak - as he did at the start in his fact-list opening. But there’s no explanation as to how the wall would deter people making $500 billion dollars in the drug trade, nor why the wall would discourage needy people - the destitute and poor, those who are persecuted by their own government - from making the dangerous journey to the United States for help.

Trump really needed to talk more about the wall in direct terms and make that case rather than the case that criminals who enter the country illegally are bad or that it’s dangerous to try to make it to the southern border. These are things the United States could help solve by many different methods. Why the wall? Then secondly, Trump needs to defend the shutdown as something the Congress has forced him to do. This seems relatively easy: The facts indicate an untenable situation that threatens thousands. It’s like a war. We are losing. We must go to extremes. Why he doesn’t try these arguments is somewhat confusing to me. He ran away from direct explanation as to why the wall is necessary when this was his one shot to really defend it.

Obviously the audience can agree that people should be kept safe and that immigration should be monitored. What’s missing is - how does the wall accomplish this? It should be easy to get this response from Pelosi and Schumer, but again we only get rhetoric that frames us - the audienced - as incapable of critical evaluation and thought.

Nancy Pelosi has no understanding of what a fact is. She seems to think it’s something that is not her perspective:

The fact is: On the very first day of this Congress, House Democrats passed Senate Republican legislation to re-open government and fund smart, effective border security solutions. But the President is rejecting these bipartisan bills which would re-open government – over his obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall – a wall he always promised Mexico would pay for!

This is wildly ineffective. Rhetorical history is rife with examples of very effective speeches of rejoinder where the rhetor agrees with the majority of the claims of their opponent, then asks questions about their proposal in dealing with those claims. It would have been so easy to start with: “Fact: We need increased border security and protection. We agree.” Or something like: “The President and Congress agree the border is rife with problems. He believes a wall will fix it. We believe a comprehensive slate of actions are needed. The only difference between us is cost and perception.” Pelosi seems to believe we can be tricked into thinking her perspective is a fact. This is not something that will work, or should work, for us making the decision. Why not point out that there’s no evidence the wall will address any of these issues?

The fact is: We all agree we need to secure our borders, while honoring our values: we can build the infrastructure and roads at our ports of entry; we can install new technology to scan cars and trucks for drugs coming into our nation; we can hire the personnel we need to facilitate trade and immigration at the border; we can fund more innovation to detect unauthorized crossings.

The fact is: the women and children at the border are not a security threat, they are a humanitarian challenge – a challenge that President Trump's own cruel and counterproductive policies have only deepened.

This is a lot more on the right track, but still lacking. How does a wall not honor our values? How does it harm our security? One or two specifics would be good here to help make the case. In the end, we are only given ethos to decide who to believe. Again, agreement with the framing - the humanitarian challenge of having borders, having wealth, and having been responsible for some of the reasons people are forced to try to cross - would help make a good case against a wall. There is no offering on how to decide here except to believe that she knows things. That’s not good enough.

Chuck Schumer comes close to something good but also misses the point:

There is an obvious solution: separate the shutdown from the arguments over border security. There is bipartisan legislation – supported by Democrats and Republicans – to re-open government while allowing debate over border security to continue.

There is no excuse for hurting millions of Americans over a policy difference. Federal workers are about to miss a paycheck. Some families can't get a mortgage to buy a new home. Farmers and small businesses won't get loans they desperately need.

If Trump appeals with narratives of violence caused by illegal immigrants, why not marshall a few stories of those who work to protect us not being able to pay rent or buy food? That seems to be a good way to push back a bit on his examples.

Even better would be the creation of a rubric by which we could evaluate threats to the country. How do we know when something is a threat? This discussion could connect to the role of the wall as synonymous with U.S. attitudes, something that Schumer hints at but doesn’t develop.

The response should have been easy. Where is the evidence that a wall will stop violent offenders, drug traffickers, human traffickers, and the suffering of peaceful people at the border? Does the presence of a wall harm our international perception? These obvious questions are left out of Pelosi and Schumer’s response because, just like President Trump, they have little confidence or faith that the audience is capable of such reason. None of the three speakers are worthy of assent. They believe the audience to be swayed by authority and uncomplicated statement. Their motives are to get agreement with their perspective-as-reality and not the “best policy.” The methods and models used assume an audience that has extreme deference to authority, that views other people as problems, and that believes in a model of facts that is untenable for democracy - a model where a fact proves itself, ends conversation, and is better than the perspectives of the millions who live under the same laws that they supposedly help create.

If anything, this address should spark concern for our national level of rhetorical ability, and we should redouble our efforts to include rhetorical practice in all curricula at all levels. An audience that can recognize being “audienced” would be a powerful weapon against such politicians who have little to no respect for those they are supposedly representing.

Ahistorical Debate Corrosion

Jack McCordick’s recent essay on the corrosion of debate that surfaced at the end of October didn’t blink on my radar, probably because this fall had the most concentrated collection of anti-debate journalism that I think I’ve ever seen. Responding to all of it has been frustrating as most of them, including this one, have been pieces meant to get readers rather than advance conversation. Most of these stories also speak in a tone to end discussion rather than open it up, and do all of the negative things they claim debate is supposed to do. But since they are journalists they never dig deeper than a few apparent instances and their own reflections in order to create a story.

McCordick’s piece is no exception, claiming that suddenly debate has been corrupted, corroded, from within and that corresponds to our poor political communication environment. Never mind that fistfights and near-death physical attacks were commonplace in the U.S. Congress up until and after the Civil War, or that in the early days of the 20th century, many debate scholars believed debate had been corroded already. Teddy Roosevelt in his memoirs proudly announced that he had never been a part of Harvard’s famed debate team because they merely teach people to speak glibly on topics, not how to have a backbone. And in the 1950s, intercollegiate debate nearly shut down when the national topic seemed to require students to develop arguments supporting Communist China. But for McCordick, debate began “all the way back” in the 1970s. McCordick proves one problem with contemporary debate pedagogy: the lack of practice of deep research. This is the most shallow and undeveloped piece on debate in the U.S. that I have ever read.

The 1970s were one of the more recent iterations of the question of what debate is good for.  The 1970s saw the very first official developmental conference on debate, the “Sedalia” conference, a place for debate teachers to come together and discuss the increasing crisis of the practice of debate. These issues resolved about 10 years later, with the division of policy debate into the NDT and CEDA, very different organizations at the time.

This is significant because for McCordick, and all other high school students who practice policy debate, their experience is curated deterministically by current collegiate debaters and debate coaches. The experiences that debate students have are governed in nearly unchecked totality by professional debate sports-enthusiasts, not people with education on the mind nor with much training in educational theory and practice. Whatever is happening at the high school level in the U.S. can be directly traced to collegiate determinations of what’s best, which is often the answer to the question, “What’s best for a fair and fun competition?” High school educators often have little say in what arguments will be developed, but more importantly have little say in how arguments will be crafted and prepared. This should give anyone pause. Not everyone benefits from a program designed to produce competitive argumentation designed to be deployed in a very specific forum for a very specific purpose. The major critique of debate, as practiced today, would be tangential to what McCordick offers. The problem is that debate isn’t taught at all. It’s coached, like a sport, and if that accidentally generates healthy views on politics or economics, that’s a bonus. The goal is to get people quickly crafting winning arguments by surveying texts rapidly for useful munitions.

His articulation of the history of Lincoln Douglas and Turner Debate (now Public Forum) is also not totally correct. Both formats are far from their idealized goals to be sure, but the corrosion came from the orientation away from educators. Both forms of debate are in the province of the so-called “Debate expert” or the Debate Coach, someone who knows very little about argumentation theory and even less about educational practices and norms. Debate should be at the very least a co-curricular experience, or one rooted within the curriculum as method, not a subject on its own, something that you can study in absentia of any particular topic.

Of course, McCordick might not be to blame. He might have asked his national championship debate coach for some of the history here, and determined that debate started in 1970. This would be typical, as most debate coaches do not see a value to the historical development of contest debating. This is very telling, as it indicates that what arguments are considered “good” in debating is arbitrary. Whatever are the feelings and flavors of the moment help indicate what arguments win in debates. There’s no historical progression from poor argument to good argument. If there were, every championship debater would be able to recite that development, and we wouldn’t have such ahistorical treatments of debate floating around. History has little to do with what wins. What wins has the most to do with what wins, and that development, if any, is arbitrary.

The piece has a lot of strange issues besides its historical poverty. McCordick also presents a confusing contradiction in his piece. He argues that contemporary discourse is complex, long, and must be read and processed quickly, like the EULAs from Apple Computers. He then says policy debate is terrible because it encourages these abilities. If the world is getting more complex and more fast on the textual level, policy debate seems like a solution rather than a problem here. Quick information processing and evaluation is exactly what is needed when the devices that govern and control so much of our personal and business lives are in the hands of corporations. Why wouldn’t this potential weakness in public address be a great way to teach critical assessment and judgement?

Even TED Talks, something I assume McCordick would like because it looks like “good” political discourse are based on large amounts of information processing that happens off-stage, as well as important concepts such as issue selection, evidence evaluation, and speech organization. McCormick’s argument is governed by a fantasy of what public discourse should look like, and that vision is one of simple correspondence. Good thinking should look the way he thinks good thought should look. And that’s about it. Since he doesn’t see a connection between rapid delivery and weird argumentation, he doesn’t see a value in it.

He’s not the first to be critical of debate as a public-facing political laboratory, or a simulation of political discourse for students. This is debate at its weakest. Debate at its strongest has little to do with political discourse. It has a lot to do with identity, and how we know and manage who we are and who we want to be. Debate is a practice of how we would like to be in the world, and how we practice maintaining who we are and what we could stand for. It’s a practice in the relationship between motive and attitude.

Debate might be a terrible way to produce a 19th century-looking political discourse (What McCordick seems to want, without the regular violence) but it’s a fantastic way to teach quick evaluation and judgement, if done properly. It’s a great way to connect speaking one’s mind and thoughts with questions of quality of research and quality of supporting evidence. All these things should be present in a good debate curriculum, and often they are not. But this isn’t why public discourse is corroding. It’s always corroding and always failing us. This is the nature of language, when we hold it up to the ideas of rational thought. If we abandon the ideals of rationality and come to terms with the limits of language, we find ourselves not in control, but in the river, lashing together what floats with us in ways that keep us above water. And if we get good at lashing together the material around us, we can invite others on to our raft, or perhaps better termed, our platform.

Recognizing this relationship with ourselves and language and argument is jarring and produces a feeling of powerlessness. Good. McCormick incorrectly believes he can spot and know the arguments that are “outlandish.” I would say, “Outlandish to you? To the audience? To who?” The idea that debate experience makes you a universal arbiter of sensemaking speech is dangerous. It is better to teach that such a figure cannot exist. Such a position rises up through the hard work of the rhetor to examine audience norms and attitudes and craft the argument and the position of the audience. In order to do that, one must not only recognize the uncertain status of knowledge, but revel in it.

I agree with McCormick that political discourse could be better. I find it spurious at best that debate practice has something to do with this. I find it more reasonable to think that debate is suffering from the same corrosive influences on speech and thought that politics are. And I believe these aliments are much, much older than we think. They might not even be ailments. Or perhaps, they can be either, if it helps our audience understand what they are to do with our utterances. At the worst, debate should prepare people to craft appropriate judgement based on looking for and toward evidence and assessing it quickly. At best, debate should encourage those who practice it to step away from the seat of arbiter, taking comfort in the swirl of uncertainty and all the possibilities open for the good rhetor. It should do this by using the extant information and research about topics within fields that are out there, showing students the diversity of argument that exists within all disciplines.