Rigid Virtues

I just read Steven Salaita’s new blog where he writes a very nice, very long piece about his new job as a school bus driver in the Washington D.C. area. It’s really good, really well written. But it’s not good rhetoric.

Salaita describes being a school bus driver in very noble terms, anchoring his description on the terrible alternative, being a university professor, and having to compromise one’s views. He describes not being able to hold his position at the American University in Beirut because he refused to compromise with the provost on a matter of campus dissent about his loss of his position. It seems, from the way Salaita tells it, that he could have held onto a position there if he had worked to quiet the student unrest. He refused to do it.

At the same time, he is very flexible and fluid and generous about finding the values in being a school bus driver. I’m sure it’s a fine job for those who need to do it. But Salaita could have done so much more if he was a bit more flexible in the way he presents his viewpoints.

Consider the idea that he could have helped those protesting students find more productive, and more acceptable ways to vent their frustration, anger, and concern about his loss of appointment. He might have been able to stay at AUB and teach and write. He would have been able to reach a great many students there, expressing to them his principles, the backing for them, and reasons why they should oppose colonization. But as a school bus driver he no longer has that opportunity.

It seems to go without saying that Salaita’s downfall is his lack of understanding when it comes to rhetoric. For him, rhetoric is always fake, always a gut-wrenching compromise, always opposed to the truth in service of the bad. Here’s a quote from him describing the oldest rhetorical form, that of speaking:

I was rarely nervous speaking in public, even when infamy provided large audiences.  During that period I was fighting for a cause, one indivisible from my career, and so I welcomed opportunities to lecture.  Self-assurance gave way to nervousness after speaking became an occupation.  Like any prestige economy, speechmaking is fraught with ego and betrayal.  It requires self-promotion and networking and assertiveness and all kinds of other things I do poorly.  People in the circuit are cognizant of the approaches and opinions that would limit their desirability and the size of their audiences.  They also understand which demographics to ridicule and which to promote.  Public discourse doesn’t exist in a free market. 

Salaita’s lack of fear of public speaking is truly disturbing. Such lack of concern means a lack of interest in the audience’s role in the crafting of meaning. Salaita is there to merely tell, to impose upon the audience his view. They are to receive it. Since it’s a right view, they will get it, or they won’t, and that will be that. His admission that he does networking poorly is meant to be a dismissal of networking as not something “honest people with conviction” are able to do, but what I get is someone who has little interest in the dynamics of communication, language, and speech. Speechmaking and public discourse don’t fit his model of what it should look like, so they don’t exist. Salaita is a certain person. Certain about a great many things, and it informs this very thin, very strange model of giving talks.

Consider an alternative, where one’s fidelity to one’s political positions encourages one to find ways of reaching audiences that, through legitimate means very much like your own, have arrived at certain conclusions. Imagine these people’s conclusions being the product of reading, thinking, living, and talking. This is how you arrived at yours. Now imagine that this machine, the human mind, could be driven on another road of such materials, and it could arrive at different conclusions. Imagine that the certainty that language offers is merely one iteration of language’s power, and that doubt and questioning are the other side of that descriptive and dominating function of language.

Sometimes it is very valuable to soften one’s virtues, one’s principles in order to allow access to why they are so good to those who you deem most unlikely to agree. A rigid expression of principled view is often the best way to eliminate any conversation or conversion, and also a good way to make sure that any and all of your attempts at persuasion are shut down (the so-called “blacklist” he mentions in the post). There has to be some flexibility in how one proposes and presents ideas to audiences. If that flexibility is not there, then we should seriously doubt the authenticity of the claim of the person that they really do want to convince people of their view. Most of the time, such as in this case, we see that the correct view is merely correct, and exposure to it should render people eager to change minds.

The idea of “honest work” is a good one, but who gets to determine that? From this post, it seems that the “honest work” of driving the school bus is that because it is extremely removed from being a professor or scholar. The distance between absolutes is not honest, but constructed. To talk about the constructed nature of scholarship, professor labor, the academy, and the blue-collar world is very interesting and could open up a great discussion. But here we have simple contrast bordering on contradiction. “this is honest because it is the opposite of that.” I think from his blog we will get a nice clinic in the importance and difficulty of the art of rhetoric.

It’s not easy to try to approach others with ideas; it is exceedingly difficult to get someone to see things from your perspective; it is nearly impossible to get agreement on a contentious issue with others. But the art of rhetoric, being flexible with the presentation of firm commitment, opening or even unlocking the door to how that commitment was formed, is essential even in its difficulty. For at the end, our presentation out loud of our commitments for the ears and mind of others turns us into an other for our own ideas, and gives us much needed refinement of those thoughts for the furthering of the argument, idea, or belief. We might not be able to convince others of our viewpoints in a frame of total agreement. But we might all end up with something new to consider, to think about, and to evaluate that comes from the no-one, from the act of rhetorical engagement itself. This is what is missing from the discourse of Salaita, and all those who fear adjusting the presentation of their ideas is total betrayal of those ideas. Good rhetoric requires it.