On January 9, 2017, A New York Post headline “How Trump Can End Brainwashing on US Campuses,” caught my eye. An obviously outraged OpEd writer condemned newer methods of teaching writing about civic participation as “brainwashing” by “leftist” faculty. Many discussions are now littered with epithets, heated, language, and loaded terms of abuse. Most recent is the newly released 500-page academic report by the National Association of Scholars, “Making Citizens: How American University Teach Civics: With Case Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder; Colorado State University; University of Northern Colorado; and the University of Wyoming,” which makes innuendos using loaded language and labels, arguing that service learning is a radical enterprise. The general idea that leftist faculty must be surveilled is supported by other resources such as Professor WatchList.
The words in the NSA report simply jumped out at me from the first page. These words and phrases are what rhetoric theorist Ernest Bormann called “fantasy themes” as part of his symbolic convergence theory. Fantasy themes are part of gathering a group into a fortified circle to block intruders.
One way I have found to alter the shape of miscommunication is to focus on the tone of the essay. If we merely mirror fantasy themes by flogging “the other side” with fantasy themes of our side’s choosing, we resemble primates scratching each other’s fleas and finding that their own camp is so “right” as we hurl feces at the neighboring chimp colony.
At this point, we hurt and not help civil discourse. The most effective way to turn back from this low-cognitive level of debate is to look for a slim slice of common ground. Look for what good ideal the other side is wishing to achieve and where talk began to miscue. Taking a non-confrontational tone and reminding all readers that there are good aspects of society we all would like to see grow and flourish sets up differently firing synapses in the brain than hitting the same old “fantasy theme” buzz words that are bound to cause hate on one side and short-sighted joy on the other. We seldom recognize our own epithets as vile slurs. Vile slurs are what the other side says about us and not what we say about them.
Worst of all, we are becoming so used to a lowering of tone in discussions that when hurling “fantasy themes,” loaded language, and epithets becomes prominent in academic media, we only tend to notice those terms directed against us, our party, our perspective.
Dialogue is a Series of Snapshots
Mentally and verbally stepping back in a series of verbal interchanges to the start takes focus and attention where “letting fly” takes neither. Each exchange is a snapshot of the situation as it improves or deteriorates. Always pause and step back when dialogue heats up. Remember the physician’s motto to “First do no harm,” because controversial situations are far easier to make worse than to improve.
Question the questioner. Are repetitious and vague labels about people and summaries in a discussion of pedagogy as useful as sticking to specific curricular points in a more professional manner? Be experimental. Try and see. How about using questions rather than proclamations of one’s own virtue? In addressing another position’s list of grievances, how might the “faulty and biased” civics curriculum be augmented to provide a more balanced view of persons, places or events? If balance and coverage in a curriculum is what is claimed to be lacking, then ask the writer for what specifically should be added. Let the writer make a case based upon research and specifics by inviting that case to be made.
Broad generalizations characterizing a side with negative “fantasy themes” are less useful and convince few but those already in agreement. Statements like “we know why they are doing this” and “I know where this is leading” anticipate a future situation even more polarized instead of stepping back and finding where common ground may be had.
Theresa Enos’ (“The Eternal Golden Braid”), Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin’s “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for Invitational Rhetoric,” as well as other scholars’ formative work in what we call “invitational rhetoric” have shown a path back from the edge. We do well to heed their advice that “letting fly” back at writers who challenge us is not the most effective rhetorical response to voices reflecting injured feelings due to our curricula that have different points of emphasis than those they favor. People will shrug their shoulders and say “It never ends, does it?’ Yes, in fact, civil discourse never does end. But there are road maps that may help, too, and I am encouraged.