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?


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.

Debate's Purpose

Discussing the so-called “intellectual dark web” with a friend of mine and the phrase really struck me as odd. This title, this identity communicates a lot about the desire of the identity of these thinkers and speakers and not much of the political position or the policies they would support.

Anyway, I love this video a friend sent me as in this clip Jordan Peterson suggests the best way to engage with leftist ideas is unavailable to them. They don’t know anyone who authentically holds a left leaning view across the board, and is able to engage them on the level and the way they like to develop their rhetoric.

Is this a gesture toward switch side debate? I think it might be much more than a gesture. I think Peterson is saying that they need to find someone who would agree to represent the views they are against in a panel format. This is similar to the suggestion made by David Bohm in his book On Dialogue where if nobody believes the opposing viewpoint, people should be assigned to represent it fairly, or as best as they can.

Switch-side debating was not created because of its educational value, but because it solved a big problem in number of people who could debate at a tournament. As the tournament model of debate eradicated all other avenues for debating, allowing colleges to enter one, or possibly two affirmative and negative teams became too few. If teams were disconnected from permanent advocacy it made it much easier to expand the tournament to accommodate the demand for participation.

The educational value of switch-side debate arose as a discourse of justification for this competitive choice. It was a very well thought out, strategic response to the tradition of debate education which had been based on an ethic of accepting student position on a debate topic as legitimate. That is, no debate instructor would encourage or force a student to take a position against what he or she walked into the club believing. This history can be examined by reading Darren Hicks and Ronald Greene’s excellent essay about it.

The arguments in favor of switch-side might have risen out of a bureaucratic need and desire to have more weekend competition speakers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the claims in favor of switch-side should be dismissed out of hand. On the contrary, there are a lot of really great reasons to make someone study argumentation this way, most notably for me the idea that it puts debate and argument in the subjective driver’s seat, making the student the object of study. In this way, debate study using switch-side makes debate similar to the study of spiritual identity and the relationship of being to the wider world, like the study of the koan in Zen Buddhism. Of course, this defense is my own and not represented in the more traditional defenses, but many of those are good because they too push an ethic that it is important to de-center students’ ideas and beliefs in order to stimulate more reading, thinking, and discussion about ideas.

Peterson’s idea of switch side isn’t meant for this purpose. He very clearly wants to have something for the sharpening of his own arguments, and the arguments of those he’s in conversation with in the video. It cannot be denied that switch-side can be used to close off, intensify, and make a set of commitments appear even better. It can be practice for a political project of some kind as opposed to using its power to remind us that our perspective is always limited.

It is this use of switch-side that requires that switch-side debate practices don’t forget that they are meant to represent alternative viewpoints on topics, not just an opposition to whatever is brought up by the affirmative side. There should be something beyond mere fidelity to argument. In Peterson’s model, at least the way he discusses it here in this short clip, his fidelity is to the argument as a thing, as something that has a “final form” or “best form” that can be recognized. This can be done rhetorically with the use of the universal audience, which I don’t think is ever far from their minds. Concern with how the audience reacts to and engages with these arguments is much more important to quality than any fidelity to argument as a closed system. The difference is whether or not your purpose in arguing is to be right or to be convincing. Obviously, everyone would like to be both. But to be both requires recognition by those to whom you are presenting your ideas. You must convey rightness in recognizable standards. Which is why using switch-side practices to refine an argument on its own terms, or in some absolute terms, will never be able to do that.

Instead, switch-side is at its best when it is allowed to threaten you with decentering your beliefs and making you think again about the support for them. Without the element of real threat, or real fear that one’s ideas could appear unsupported, the pedagogy doesn’t work. This is also why an audience is necessary, and one that is approached in the terms of the universal audience - without resorting to inside appeals that only a vanguard would understand.

Also, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a wealth of literature easily accessible to people who want to engage ideas discussing switch-side debate and other rhetorical practices, such as declamation, that can not only help one articulate one’s beliefs, but form the beliefs themselves. This aspect of rhetorical education is always present and often ignored, mostly to our peril. We are being shaped, and shaping others, through something we treat as throw-away style or transmission. It’s not just a “fun” thing to do, it’s a dangerously transformative practice. I guess it’s fun in the way that playing with chemicals in a chemistry lab is fun. But respect for what one is handling is paramount.

What can we do as rhetoric scholars to create a wealth of information about the practice of the oral expression of arguments for the purpose of intellectual investigation or critical inquiry? Where are the public intellectuals of the art of practicing how one says something as a method to determine what one is going to say? And more so, speaking out your ideas as a way of crafting and creating them? When are we really going to take this mantle on? When are we going to take responsibility for our scholarship and its incredible importance for the creation of thought, belief, and attitude among millions around the world?

What Happened to Us?

books by Professor Lionel Crocker, Ph.D.

books by Professor Lionel Crocker, Ph.D.

There was a time when professors of speech were proud to be called professors of speech and wrote a dizzying array of analytical texts, dancing the rhetorical line of textbook and study. What happened?

Professors of speech were proud to teach students about orators and oration, and proud to encourage them to speak up and out, to give oral presentations in class. Now it seems mostly what we do is grade poorly written papers of half-assed explanations of French critical theory. It’s half-assed, because it’s borrowed. It’s not ours. We are embarrassed of what we own, we want to pretend it’s not ours. We want to own something cooler. We are anxious about being “mere” speech teachers.

I really miss The Journal of the American Forensic Association because it was an example of what we aspired to be and what we gave up on. I don’t have actual nostalgia because I’m not old enough to have professionally interacted with the journal before it was transformed into the much cooler, but not quite French Argumentation and Advocacy. The shift in content is palpable if you look through the legacy of JAFA. Gone are the concerned pieces about doing right by students. Present are a lot of essays that claim to have “figured out what really happened” in a public controversy that is over 3 or 4 years old. I prefer and miss the accounting of teaching, the concerns about obligations, ethical and otherwise toward students who are speaking and creating rhetoric, and the concern about evaluation and assessment. I don’t think that A&A, or any of our communication journals are terribly interested in these conversations. Sometimes it’s unclear to me what the Taylor and Francis journals are, except file folders for academic essays. Who goes through and reads one particular journal over another one?

I accidentally discovered Lionel Crocker and his work and it’s like a breath of fresh air, sort of like the Druidian canned air in the film Spaceballs. Crocker was a “generalists generalist” and lost nothing from it. He taught public speaking, a very problematic class worth talking about called “The Great Orators” (that would be fun to see that syllabus today), Debate and Argumentation (the way I prefer it phrased anyway) as well as other courses on politics and speech. He also regularly gave speeches himself and some were published in Vital Speeches of the Day. He was also listed in Who’s Who in the United States several times. He felt confident and comfortable teaching 7 classes and then spending the afternoon writing about whatever he felt he wanted to share scholarly opinion on.

How do we get back to this? Hyper-specialization has made us concerned about the material ownership of our teaching and research, and has made us wary of sharing ideas with others in an accessible way. Our tenure and promotion standards are based on the question, “How few people can understand your work?” And teaching is considered to be a grueling labor that one must tolerate in order to do the real work: publishing some esoteric thing in a very expensive, very pay-walled journal that many people will never see. We should question why we feel such anxiety about where we are, what we study, and why we wish it were something other than what it is. I’m not suggesting everyone abandon their research agendas. Far from it. I’m suggesting that there is an old abandoned mode of performing “rhetoric professor” that should be recovered, explored, tested, discussed, and possibly adapted for performance. Don’t young people today call this a ‘reboot’?

Concerning ourselves with the public and shared nature of oratory, concerning ourselves with the American, oratorical tradition of public speaking and public address, concerning ourselves with this as a dangerous and influential set of powerful and revolutionary ideas (which is why looking at the Great Orators course syllabus would be a class in itself on modes of exclusionary politics), thinking about rhetoric as a daily practiced lived thing among all people who argue and think and engage one another regularly is what we should turn our attention toward, scholarly and pedagogically, and realize that what we own, what our tradition is, and what we are able to teach is nothing short of subversive. In the physics lab they do not let the students actually construct nuclear bombs. If they only knew what we hand over for practice in our courses.

A few years ago I thought about writing about another of these highly influential, highly thoughtful generalists of our field who are forgotten (or ignored?) Arthur Kreuger. There are a ton of these people who should still be thought about, and potentially emulated in some respects , most notably people who want to engage the world around them with scholarship and pedagogy instead of a few hundred people who “get it.” I get so much out of looking at what they did, but I wonder what the research agenda looks like? At the last Tokyo Argumentation Conference, David Zarefsky gave a presentation on Douglas Ehninger, another of these generalist types, and how and why his research matters, or speaks to us today. Many of you know I love Ehninger, but his legacy is hardly one that needs recovery.

Who else out there do I not know about? Who might I bump into next? I can’t remember where I found out about Crocker, but I think this sort of approach to rhetoric is one that we are missing and would really, really benefit from in ways that we have forgotten about.

A debate laboratory in Italy

The scientific metaphor is dangerous. We get it all the time though, so it’s something we don’t pay much attention to. But the scientific metaphor of knowledge isn’t going to work unless you have some stable quantities at some point in the operation. So a debate laboratory seems like a bad metaphor, the sort I would critique here. Stabilizing debate, however it’s done, adds elements of artificiality into the process that trade off with pedagogical value. For example, stable notions of what arguments “beat” other arguments give a sense of debate practice that just does not hold up in front of audiences, but it sure makes tournaments possible.

So to call a debate conference a laboratory really surprised me. Earlier this month, I attended the debate laboratory at the University of Padua in Italy, arranged by Professor Adelino Cattani. Here the stable element was the most obvious one: What is best for the student?

The invited speakers at the 2018 University of Padua Debate laboratory.

The invited speakers at the 2018 University of Padua Debate laboratory.

This “best” needs some definition. Throughout the papers I heard there was a concern that debate was meant for other purposes than determining who had the best arguments or who was the best debater. Most debate practice, as demonstrated by the speakers, is aimed at improving student rhetorical ability - that is how to prepare reason, evidence, and argument for oral delivery in front of an audience where you will have live critique by an advocate for the other side at the same time.

Here are the big take-aways from the Padua conference:

  1. There is great value in having isolated pockets of debate practice that are internally focused. A break from my previous views so it seems. Not exactly: These practices are absent a tournament circuit where there’s a number of set, “important” tournaments to attend, and the only goal is the competition that you are having right then. It seems that keeping debate practices localized and isolated from a large competitive circuit allows you to focus on student education and to be able to assess it outside of victories. One of the best examples of the poverty of intercollegiate debate education is the lack of any other metric than tournament success to determine if debate is teaching.

  2. Focus on one element of debating practice can be intellectually rich. I was very curious what other people would talk about in Padua because the theme of the conference was judging. Can we create a good judging sheet that everyone can agree upon? I thought it was a strange topic, but I thought of an idea and wrote down some ideas I hoped were good. It turns out that this sort of focus allows for deeper and more sustained thought about a practice, one percentage of the total practice of debate that then becomes a symbol of the larger ideology operating within debating no matter how it is practiced.

  3. Better debate is happening outside of - not in spite of - the obvious locations. Travelling to Padua and hearing about debate in South America, France, Spain, and Italy really made me realize not only how possible, but how good it is to look for debate happening as part of curricula, part of a way of assessment and evaluation in university and other places of learning. All of debate’s negative characteristics stem from the idea that debate is meant for a competition that will recognize a winner. Attending this laboratory gave me faith in the project of practicing debate intellectually, as a teacher, and not as some sport coach trying to design plays that win prizes. One refreshing element was no discussion of what winners get or how to create a fair debate, as opposed to a debate conference I went to in the spring where over an hour of a two-day meeting was spent discussing the question “What prizes should they win?” It was very refreshing to find a community that is motivated more by the question, “Are we doing right by our students in how we judge their debates?”

So far this is what I’m reflecting on. There was a time when actual teachers ran debate programs in America, and were concerned about what was happening to their students and how debate was influencing and moving their thought and reading. Today most American students’ experience in debate is a very shallow one, motivated by beating others, winning awards, and creating argument “plays” that cannot be defended against. Far away from the study of how to motivate audiences, we have intercollegiate debate that renders thought into awe and conversation into silence in the presence of the definite master of argument. Perhaps a one-day conference on the question of one argument strategy, speaker points, or judging would benefit American practices as well, by allowing us a concrete and stable place from which we can reveal some of the trappings of ideology and whether we really want them in our art.