As we head into summer, we should invite our students to practice all the skills they’ve honed in our writing classrooms as they listen to the political dialogues unfolding this season. Let’s hope they participate in them, too.
Here in South Bend, Indiana, we locals are listening closely to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s surprising presidential campaign. I was one of the freezing thousands who gathered in the drafty un-renovated portion of a Studebaker assembly plant, rain dripping through the rafters, to witness Buttigieg’s official launch. His speech rang the chimes of ethos, logos, and pathos, and charmed the teachers in the crowd by inviting Mrs. Chismar — his high school Economics teacher — into the lineup of introductory voices.
While I don’t always agree with Buttigieg, I am struck by his rhetorical generosity as he works to create common ground on polarizing issues. For example, when he discusses climate change, he uses the term “climate security” and argues for a “generational alliance” to draw together a range of perspectives to solve this life-threatening problem.
Pete Buttigieg has been questioned by the press for benefiting from both male privilege and white privilege, ethos-boosters that he has been — to my ears — fairly reflective about, as in this conversation with Trevor Noah. He has also resisted and complicated standard narratives of coming out as a gay person, as in this discussion with Rachel Maddow. Listening to Buttigieg, I think of educator José Antonio Bowen’s championing of “slow thinking” in the classroom, which I wrote about last fall. This summer, I’ll be gathering linguistic examples that invite us to think beyond polarities from Buttigieg and the many other candidates vying for the presidency to use in the classroom.
I’ve also learned a lot about resisting polarizing thinking from Northwestern University medical ethicist Katie Watson, whose book, Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion, takes on fearlessly, and generously, current abortion debates. Rather than arguing for common ground, Watson argues for pluralism. She concludes,
The abortion debate often seems to boil down to a debate about vulnerability: Who or what is more in need of protection, fetuses or women? For me, the vulnerable thing in need of protection is pluralism —the idea that Americans who vigorously disagree about gender, family, sex, religion, and endless other topics can all flourish in the same country. (213)
Watson’s insights about pluralism reach far beyond this issue, of course. Like Buttigieg, Watson champions moving beyond “master narratives” of experiences in order to give voice to individual stories, which are always more complex and nuanced than generic “master narratives,” and have greater potential to invite compassion, even from those with very different experiences.
In From Inquiry to Academic Writing, my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I offer student writers skills for compassionate engagement with different perspectives through a Rogerian approach to argument, founded by psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Rogerian argument aims to reduce listeners’ sense of threat, and to open them to alternative perspectives. We offer four steps toward Rogerian argumentation for academic writers:
- Conveying to readers that their different views are understood.
- Acknowledging conditions under which readers’ views are valid.
- Helping readers see that the writer shares common ground with them.
- Creating mutually acceptable solutions to agreed-on problems
Holding these steps in mind as we engage others in the next few months will not only be good for our classrooms, but — Buttigieg and Watson would argue — it will be an investment in our democracy.
I held these thoughts in mind when Cornel West spoke in South Bend a few weeks ago, reminding a university crowd that “No matter how educated we are, we are part of the learned ignorant.” In his wide-ranging lecture, he kindled the theme of humility and vulnerability as essential to ethos if we are to engage in non-polarizing dialogue on difficult issues. Because he was in South Bend, and because West traveled in academic circles with Pete Buttigieg’s father, West played to the hometown crowd: “I remember little Pete when he was running around in short pants!” He then praised Professor Joe Buttigieg as “a caretaker of Gramsci.”
That phrase has lingered for me — being a “caretaker” of ideas, and of one another. Our task as instructors, as learners, and as citizens is surely to practice care-taking in these inhospitable times.
Photo Credit: April Lidinsky