Why I Don’t Buy the Arguments to Vote for Kavanaugh

This afternoon, the Senate–after weeks of rancor and the bathetic hem-hawing of folks like Flake–will vote in Kavanaugh as the Ninth Justice of the current Supreme Court. I should technically say that they “likely” or “all-but-certainly” will, but precision devalues the sheer force pushing confirmation. So, unless God himself smites the Capitol Monty-Python style, hello Chief Justice Kavanaugh.

I haven’t written here in a while, though I have been meaning to, and perhaps those now-unfinished posts may make their way up here. But like many, the Kavanaugh confirmation, long-since troublesome, has consumed my thinking the past two weeks after Ford’s accusations and subsequent testimony. Considered a referendum on the #MeToo movement, the debate over Kavanaugh certainly represents a crucible-rupturing focus on gender politics in an already fraught era. It has also brought up issues of judicial impartiality and temperment, the institutional credibility of the court, and the stability of centrist and liberal provisions eked out over the past decades.

All of these are important conversations, as are the testimonies of Ford and Kavanaugh, the political background of Kavanaugh, the procedural issues of the confirmation, the veracity of his two other accusers, and many more issues. However, I mainly want to focus on the arguments of those in favor of the Kavanaugh vote, as I see them.

I want to take these at face value, though I suspect like so much in this era, they lack the sincerity of their delivery. I do this knowing that it makes no difference. Having called public servants, donated to causes, talked with friends, and gone to protests–done all in my current power, in other words–I feel that it may at-best be an intellectual exercise. Nevertheless, as a teacher and student of rhetoric, I think it’s important to look at the arguments that govern major political and policy decisions and define our country for our lifetimes and beyond.

As such, I see three main arguments, summarized and addressed below. And, yes, I am biased. I do not want Kavanaugh, but being biased does not preclude academic fairness. And frankly, I don’t think these arguments deserve that fairness, but many Americans (cough, Republicans) support him, so here we go.

Gif of woman shrugging tiredly with the phrase "Here we go" below

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Fake News, Affect, and Media Literacy (C&W 2018)

Here is my introduction as part of a round table at the 2018 Computers and Writing Conference at George Mason:

As Bruce McComiskey describes in his recent Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition, “fake news” has become another means to validate and circulate falsehoods, facilitated by social media and an audience’s desire to share and support this erroneous news. But it goes beyond this. As Collin Brooke argues in “How Trump Broke/red the Internet,” many people critiquing articles share them, causing it to trend, and beyond human agents, bots share and comment. “The Spread of True and False News Online” by Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, Sinan Aral finds that fake news tends to spread faster than truthful sources on Twitter.

As an example, fake news offers a sticky paradox: opponents of “post-truth” are often hampered in their fight by broader histories of habit (especially in the media), infrastructure, and economic goals and models. While this brief introduction does not have the space to detail this, I want to describe what I mean, why it’s significant, and two approaches.

A Backdrop: Media and Post-Truth Rhetoric

In terms of these histories of habit, Michael X. Delli Carpini argues in “Alternative facts,” “Rather than an exception, ‘Trumpism’ is a culmination of trends that has been occurring for several decades” (18). The blur between news and entertainment, the weakening of traditional gatekeepers, and the growth of what Carpini calls a “multiaxial” and “hyperreal” media landscape, where contradictory news co-exists and information often replaces the underlying material reality it represents—all of these represent long-standing trends contributing to Trump and post-truth rhetoric.

Mainstreaming fringe discourse also contributes. As Waisborg et al argue in “Trump and the Great Disruption in Public Communication,” mainstream news offered platforms for fact-free, intolerant discourse from formerly fringe groups, and as Zeynep Tufekci argued in a recent New York Times op-ed, algorithms on sites like YouTube often draw viewers to more extreme content. Angela Nagel, in Kill all Normies, and a recent report from Whitney Phillips in Data and Society also point out this mainstreaming, highlighting the role of trolls. Furthermore, as Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression highlights: the digital infrastructure often enforces hegemony and racism.

As rhetoric has long been central to public deliberation, we need to teach what has become of this deliberation. While political enmity, fractured discourse, and fake news are not new—from Ancient Athens killing Socrates to the strife of Reconstruction—our media landscape is. And I think two points bare deeper scrutiny.

Possible Responses

First, as Zizi Papacharissi argues in Affective Publics, we often underestimate the role affect in public debate. This is especially true today, as her work with social media shows. Many of these point-and-click economies rely on affect, often stoking social change—or the means for it—through revenue models, forming “affective publics” as networks organize online and offline. Many legacy media outlets also rely on affect to draw and maintain viewers, informing coverage. While we, as a field, may often prioritize logos and ethos in writing, we need to recognize affect and its ability to circumvent other appeals—through humans and interfaces.

Second, much as the digital humanities has advocated working with computer science departments while developing computer literacies of our own, I think we need to connect with media and journalism. As public rhetoric often takes place through news—fake or otherwise, on television or through Facebook—we need to connect with those who do this work, how it is done, its history, and how it circulates. In other words, we need to interrogate the whole structure, not just consumer media habits and literacies.

Patricia Roberts-Miller argues in Demagoguery and Democracy that demagoguery comes from an underlying culture. Even as we fight the daily battles of post-truth rhetoric, we must also—per our energy’s allowance—combat the underlying war, as it pervades our media, politics, and daily lives.

 

Works Cited:

Bockowski, Pablo J. and Zizi Papacharissi, eds. Trump and the Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018.

Brooke, Collin Gifford. “How #Trump Broke/red the Internet” Skinnell 122-141.

Carpini, Michael X. Delli. “Alternative Facts : Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New U.S. Media Regime.” Bockowski and Papacharissi 17-24.

McComiskey, Bruce. Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2017.

Nagle, Angela. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2017.

Papacharissi, Zizi. Affective Publics : Sentiment, Technology, and Politics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Phillips, Whitney. “The Oxygen of Amplification.” Data and Society. 22 May 2018. Web.

Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy. New York, NY: The Experiment, 2017.

Skinnell, Ryan, ed. Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump. Exeter, UK: Imprint, 2018.

Tufekci, Zeynep. “YouTube, The Great Radicalizer.” The New York Times. 10 March 2018. Web.

Vosoughi, Soroush, Deb Roy, Sinan Aral. “The Spread of True and False News Online.” Science 359.6380 (2018): 1146-1151.

Waisbord, Silvio, Tina Tucker, and Zoey Lichtenheld. “Trump and the Great Disruption in Public Communication.” Bockowski and Papacharissi 25-32.

Image Credits:

Featured: Lorie Shaull, “Lightning strikes Trump bus…fake news?” (via CC)

 

Language Politics, Censorship, and Reality

The poet Charles Olson wrote, “Whatever you have to say, leave/  The roots on, let them/ Dangle/ And the dirt/ Just to make clear/ Where they come from.” Words are grimed, caked, and clotted with decades of use and wrinkled with age. Some words and phrases become anachronistic, like “winding” a window down in a world of electric windows. Others carry an explosive politics. Many get bleached by the endless passing of palms, losing a clear meaning.

But at a deeper sense, Olson’s line reminds me that we need to inspect our language in all its dirty history and daily use. To take it step further: Words impact our world, etching our reality like the steady run of water on rock or blowing it up like dynamite.

As George Orwell wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” His classic 1984 also stresses the coercive and meaning-making power of language through “newspeak,” the official language of Oceania that uses simplicity and structure to limit free thought. For example, “bad” no longer exists; instead, one has “ungood.” By limiting expression, one limits thought. This, among other reasons, hits at the danger of censorship and its popularity among totalitarian regimes.

This, of course, leads me to the recent reveal of the Trump administration’s censorship of seven words for the CDC: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” While the initial call seems like it was over-blown, the words being discouraged for the CDC budget to make it more palatable, it follows a larger pattern: the EPA’s censoring of scientists, the removal of “LGBT” and “climate change” from the White House site, Trump’s attacks on the media and use of “fake news” epithets, etc. Indeed, even if the Post’s story was overblown, the fact they needed to police their language along ideological lines for research funds troubles me.

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Rhetorics of Winning

With the tax bill passing Friday being touted as a “win” by Republicans, despite potential blowback, I keep coming back to an idea I’ve been nursing for a few weeks now: winning in politics. Phrases like Trump’s “you’ll be tired of winning” and reporter’s “Republicans need a win” saturate public discourse, and I keep asking what “winning” means. Like most buzzwords,”winning” leaves much unsaid–and unthought–but it still exerts its influence. And in this case, “winning” isn’t a good thing. What I call a “rhetoric of winning,” this trend to frame things as “wins,” feels like a significant danger for our current American politics.

Winning immediately brings up positive images. Triumph. Trophies. Confetti. The climax of a sports movie when our underdog protagonists finally overcome the big, mean team.  But these positive feelings overlook two key things: opponents and win/loss binaries.

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Tech’s Silicon Tower

I was just reading Cathy O’Neil’s (@mathbabedotorg) New York Times piece on the tech industry and academia, which argues how academics have not done enough to study issues caused by recent technology, including filter bubbles and big data. Others have already critiqued some of the tone and oversights of the piece, with varying degrees of sass, but I want to look at it as a rallying cry. While I think the piece could give more credit to current researchers, it recognizes a dangerous gap between this research and the tech industry.

A few of O’Neil’s points are especially key. For one, she notes how big data is often cloistered in companies, reducing access to academics. She also notes how private companies hire academics, and she describes how funding that drives engineering and computer science programs may not include more humanities-tinged concerns for the ethical, social dimensions of technology.

More contentiously, O’Neil also says, “There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology — and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions — in our lives.” While a distinct field of study may be harder to name and locate, plenty of sub-fields and inter-disciplinary work hits at this exact issue. For example, in rhet-comp, Kevin Brock and Dawn Shepherd discuss algorithms and their persuasive power and Jessica Reyman has analyzed issues of authorship and copyright with big data. Beyond rhet-comp, danah boyd continues to write on these issues, along with work from the University of Washington.

But a gap remains to some extent, despite this research.

Personally, I see two potential reasons: hubris and tech’s failure to consider social media more critically. Regarding hubris, George Packer’s “Change the World” (2013) explores Silicon Valley’s optimism and their skepticism of Washington. After describing how few start-ups invest in charity, for instance, Packer writes:

At places like Facebook, it was felt that making the world a more open and connected place could do far more good than working on any charitable cause. Two of the key words in industry jargon are “impactful” and “scalable”—rapid growth and human progress are seen as virtually indistinguishable. One of the mottoes posted on the walls at Facebook is “Move fast and break things.” Government is considered slow, staffed by mediocrities, ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies.

After Russia’s propaganda push and amid ongoing issues, like Facebook’s role in genocide, this optimism seems naive and dangerous. Zuckerberg’s trip to the Midwest , hiring more fact checkers, and increasing  government scrutiny seem to point to a change. But I’m not sure how much is actually changing in tech–or larger structures like education and law.

This leads me to my second thought. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger distinguishes between the ready-at-hand and the present-at-hand. The former refers to how we normally go through life, interacting with objects without much reflective thought, while the later refers to the way a scientist or philosopher may look at stuff. In his hammer example, Heidegger says that we normally use a hammer without much second thought, but once the hammer breaks, we reflect on what it is or does.

Similarly, with the ugly realities of social media surfacing more, we are more apt to examine and reflect. Before it “broke,” we used it as a neutral tool to communicate and pontificate digitally. As long as we continue to see social media as a neutral tool, or a tool just needing tweaks or fixes, we miss considering what social media is within a broader context of culture, economics, and society. We may be waking up to these deeper questions now, but we can’t fall back on present-for-hand approaches to use and design.

As Lori Emerson (2014) argues, companies rush to intuitive designs and ubiquitous computing, but we must consider how these trends blackbox the values and potentials of our tools. As Emerson and others argue, we can challenge these trends with firmer technological understanding, more democratized development, and the resistance of hackers and activists.

But with tech having so much power, I am not optimistic for change without a broader attitudinal shift in tech and elsewhere. I only see incremental changes coming, like increased fact checkers and algorithmic tweaks. These are good and may lead to significant change in time, but fundamental outlooks in tech–what philosophers may call instrumental rationality–will likely stay the same. Many critique the Ivory Tower for its obsession with present-at-hand abstraction, but the Silicon Tower seems just as dangerous with its present-for-hand reduction.

[Image: “Hacker” by the Preiser Project, via Creative Commons]

 

Politics and Play

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, and an especially long time since I’ve blogged “for fun” outside of a class requirement, but with the semester starting up again, I wanted to start off with positive habits, creating a space to think through things. For now, I’ve been thinking a lot about politics and what my own interest in play can bring.

Wary of becoming another “It’s Time for Some Game Theory” guy or the writer of a naive think piece that praises some creepy gamifying tactic, I nevertheless think that play, games, etc., have a lot to offer how we consider politics.

Game theory
Image from Know Your Meme

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CCR 634: Legalism, Quintilian, and Structure

Reading Han Feizi, Quintilian, and Arabelle Lyon’s treatment of Daoism, Legalism, and Confucianism, I kept coming back to the role of the individual rhetor and the larger context, as well as the role of different genres and different types of “persuasion.” But I will likely just focus on the first of these.

With Han Feizi, I often noticed the limits of rhetoric, particularly when he discusses how good words–or a good orator–can still end up in trouble. As he writes, after a litany of violent examples, “Why could these worthies and sages not escape death penalties and evade disgrace? It was because of the difficulty in persuading fools. Hence every gentleman 37 has to remain diffident of speaking. Even the best speech displeases the ear and upsets the heart, and can be appreciated only by worthy and sage rulers” (Book 1, Ch. III).

Here, I couldn’t help but think of Socrates–and to a lesser extent Cicero–as well as the book of Ecclesiastes railing against the efficacy of knowledge. What good is knowledge or eloquence when your audience doesn’t care? I feel like this is a question that doesn’t show up as much in other texts that we’ve read.

Countering this, I think feminist rhetoric tends to point to problems with the “available means of persuasion” when unwilling audiences and cultures are critical. Introducing their anthology Available Means (2001), Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald, for example, describe “women’s rhetoric” as “a tradition that has existed only in the shadows for centuries because women’s writing and speaking have not been gathered together as ‘rhetoric’” (xvi). And while many of the speakers they include were trained rhetoricians or employed deliberate rhetorical tactics, their anthology also includes “women’s writing that may not meet and that may even defy traditional rhetorical criteria and categories— especially concerning ethos, or the appeal of the speaker’s ‘character,’” as this reflects the often marginalized position where women spoke (xviii). They also include many alternative texts, like letters, and topoi that differ from Aristotle’s traditional conception of rhetoric and how people have taken that up. Without tradition audiences, many women rhetors had to use different “available means.”

And I think that’s where “shih” comes in, as Han Feizi, describes, which I gather is a sort of authority from institutional structure. Through shih, people are forced, or forcibly attuned, to listen. Order gets maintained regardless of “who” is governing.

This trust in order felt really interesting, because although Han Feizi also values “tact,” which reminds me a bit like Confucian ren as an ability to read people and navigate governing in a shrewd way, the roles of shih and fa (laws) are extrinsic to the rhetorician at some level.  As Han Feizi argues, the rhetorician does not need to be “worthy” to have this authority, as most people are “average men,” not particularly bad or good. Rather, one should construct a strong structure that can give rulers their authority and not allow them to disrupt things too much if they are not good.

This contrasts a bit with Quintilian who describes rhetoric as the “good man speaking well” and continually emphasizes the moral character of the rhetor, even noting in the later chapters that this is something that they must practice continually. Furthermore, individual training and a close relationship with individual teachers are important, almost forming a familial relationship.

And without being too reductive, I find this to be a more common thread in Western v. Eastern rhetorical traditions as we’ve encountered them. Again, this is not meant to be a totalizing generalization, but many of the traditions we have read–Legalism, Doaism, and Confucianism–seem to value how one relates to elements beyond the individual, while the Greeks and Romans tend to value how the individual navigates certain points as an individual.

On the one hand, the Daodejing values how one aligns with the Way; Dong Zhongshu emphasizes the relationship between emperor, Heaven, and the people; Confucius emphasizes the role of ritual and alignment with tradition and public harmony; and Han Feizi emphasizes the role of law.

Meanwhile, Isocrates values the individual abilities of the student, and Aristotle emphasizes the rhetor’s individual ability to read and intervene with the situation or wield their ethos in a productive way. Cicero and Quintilian also have a similar focus. With Cicero, trying to evoke the emotions of the audience becomes central, and Quintilian recognizes the potential individuality of the speaker as well.

Obviously, complications exist, though. For Confucius, it seems that the individual must spend a lifetime cultivating inner virtue, much like Quintilian’s ideal rhetor. And many on the Greek side, from the Dissoi Logoi onward, recognize the contextual nature of rhetoric, particularly how rules change. More generally, then, I think these readings emphasize the perennial tug-of-war between the individual and kairotic or contextual elements of rhetoric. As Thomas Nagel argues about philosophy, there is no “view from nowhere;” for rhetoric, even as we craft forms and heuristics, this seems equally true–if not more so.

 

CCR 634: Doing things with Words

When reading Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus dialogues, as well as the Dissoi Logoi and Gorgias’ “Ecomium,” three motifs struck me: the role of relativism, the act of teaching rhetoric, and the power of language. I also couldn’t help but meld some of these readings with where my head is at lately, so I think I’ll start there.

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CCR 633: I Can’t Even

I may touch on Swinging the Machine in this post, but I need a space to think through what happened a bit. If I need to write a make-up post, I can, but I simply couldn’t write one tonight.

I think Trump’s policies are destructive and that he is morally dubious, or even repugnant. But, this isn’t what worries me. What worries me is that Trump’s election may legitimize ideologies and discourses that could destroy our democracy as we now conceive it. In this way, I am not worried about Trump per se; I am worried about what people call Trumpism. I don’t think that this destruction is inevitable, but I think that Trump’s election presents a shock to the system and requires a radical examination of “politics.” As Marx said, “all that is solid melts into thin air,” and now, we need to figure out what to do.

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