Slight Adjustments

For those of you keeping track of my whereabouts, I am enjoying my first morning in Rabat in 2017. I have had a lot of mornings in Rabat over the years, but each trip comes with its own set of adjustments.

Reflecting on adjustment and how frustrated I get when things don't go the way I would like them to aka my own personal preference. Adjustment is a hard thing to do. I thought about that as I got used to another Moroccan shower - they are always quite the challenge. This one though required intervention from the home owner, who understood immediately why I was having trouble and turned some knobs and hit a button on a box affixed to an outside hallway. Now I feel like a clean human. 

I'm contrasting this experience with the reported experience of students who debated at John Jay this past weekend. Of course, a woman was called "too aggressive" by a judge (not a debate type person mind you, but a real life professor sort of person I'm guessing) and there were difficulties in adjusting argument to ears and non-responsive teams. Admittedly, we were engaging more with the Davis book than most centrist-thinkers would be willing to do, but I did feel we had some good strategies to account for that. The question I am left with is how much adjustment becomes harmful? At what point does a slight adjustment become a slight?

Rhetoricians more than sophists have pondered this for quite a while - how much adaptation does one do before one does harm to one's argument or one's positionality? Are there some ideas the audience has that are not adaptable? Are there some we should reject? 

Of course there are - there are many things audiences carry around with them that we would want to intervene in as speakers and persuaders. How much can be done before one loses track or sight of the main point, or the reason the audience came to hear you in the first place? Of course, these concerns are eliminated from debate competition - we are debating debate, and judging debate quality outside of the context. There is no motive for why we showed up other than to debate. You can imagine the weirdness much easier if you were to picture an angry crowd: "We are here to protest, now give us an issue!"

The slight adjustment is to the context and lay of the land/audience. The adjustment slight happens when the judge tries to evaluate the debate as debate, without a larger conversation rooting the identities and roles of the participants (including observers). Judges feel they are not commenting on a part of a larger conversation, but the inate abilities of the performers to convince, sans context and motive, given there were someone in the room who was willing to be convinced.

I think the slight occurs when speakers feel they have to substantially alter their positionality to a point where they don't recognize it in order to accommodate the audience. Recognizing what one is doing when persuading seems to me to be the root of the art. If you have to violate your positionality in the terms of recognition to get something across to an audience it might be doing it the wrong way, or something you wouldn't do because it was uncomfortable, or it could be a fallacy in the Perelman/Olbrects-Tyteca sense. 

I feel that audiences, as opposed to some individual judge, avoid the issues of the slight. Judges, especially those who are not trained in rhetorical theory, feel they have to "judge" which is make pronouncements on what was good and bad. For them, the experience is a total experience. They comment on everything that led them to think one way or another. There is no larger audience filtering or serving as a buffer for their thoughts in the discussion of what happened. The things they say to the speakers might often be understood as requests to slight oneself, to "be someone else and then I would have voted for you." This obviously isn't helpful for students or judges. Often times judges appeal to ideological assumptions to justify their decisions that stem from racist or sexist assumptions (female "aggression" African-American "angry speeches", etc). It doesn't really check the boxes on the event being educational, i.e. how can we do this better? Opposed to: How can I win more debates?

The presence of an audience, the more I think about it and the more adjusted slights that I experience with my students, seems like a solution. The ancients always assumed an audience, or a judge who imagined himself as part of a larger community conversation on standards. Contemporary rhetorical thought, at least in criticism, imagines a realistically-sized audience for judgement. Everyone imagines him or herself as a part of a larger conversation about what works. But a single judge told that he or she is judging a competition, and given a charge to decide who is better at debating too easily reads the charge as "who is better" and provides commentary that may not be helpful if it is interpreted as, "If only you were someone else. Then you'd win."