Sunday, May 25, 2008

Speaking civily

Every mother of 2 or more children knows what happens when the rhetoric between 2 parties fails--the fighting and violence begins. This, applied to the larger picture, of course, is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about the study of rhetoric: because the failure of rhetoric brings with it disasterous consequences for individual relationships and for our world at large.

And this is one of the reasons why I was eager to read Sharon Crowley's recent book Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. I've admired Crowley's grasp of ancient rhetorics since I was a new university instructor and used her book Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students to teach honors rhetoric at BYU. It's no surprise, then, that Crowley argues in this new book for the need to reinvigorate ancient rhetorics and to use principcles from it in our current quest as religious unbelievers (her assumed audience of her book) to speak civily with religious fundamentalists. Crowley wrote this book in order to study if there are ways in which believers and unbelievers can converse with each other with fairness and accuracy and to study if it's possible to convince believers to adopt different political or intellectual positions.

Overall, the book is a good one, "good" in the sense that it made me think and it made me want to respond to her via my dissertation. I like her application of ancient rhetoric, I like her acknowledgment that liberalism can be intolerant by refusing believers' appeals to divine authority. However, I ended the book wanted to have my own conversation (civil, of course) with Crowley. Here's what I would tell her:

(1) "Sharon [because we may be on first-name basis, since we reside in the same state and since she did once call me personally to offer me a position in ASU's Ph.D. program], I'm disappointed that you lumped together all articulations of fundamentatist beliefs. To me, it seems like you're putting religious and liberal beliefs in their own separate boxes--you're not allowing them to intermingle. I think, in reality, many religious people (not the Jerry Falwells and the Tim LaHayes that you quote so frequently) have more complexity in their belief systems than you allow for. For example, as a Mormon woman, feminist, sometimes liberal, sometimes conservative, my academic, religious, and political beliefs are intertwined in ways that are complex and sometimes conflicting. I think you unfairly portray fundamentalist beliefs as without complexity."

(2) "Sharon, your final conclusion is that liberals need to appeal to pathos (emotion) to persuade religious fundamentalists to adopt different positions. You seem overly concerned, in my opinion, with helping liberals craft responses to religious positions. As a religious person who as received very little respect in academics for my religious beliefs, I have to tell you that pathos would not persuade me. But ethos might. When ethos (respect, appeal to goodness of character) occurs in rhetorical situations and all parties feel genuinely valued and listened to, people tend to relax parts of their guard a bit, they become open to others as people, and they tend to actually listen to what they say. I've seen this happen with the women who are participating in my dissertation research. They have learned from each other, some have changed their perspectives, and they have (usually) engaged in civil discourse that emerges from respect."

I think the key to civil discourse is to try to understand the other person, not to persuade them. As you attempt to understand someone, you may also come to respect them. And when you communicate this respect to them, civil discourse can occur. That civil discourse is necessary for persuasion.

Now, if only I can communicate this, civily, to my 5yo and 3yo who are arguing and screeching in the next room, and teach them the nuances of civil discourse, I could write my own book.

1 comment:

smart mama said...

civil discourse and child development there are some odd bedfellows