Comments on Dissent and Spectacle (The Town Hall Edition): an Introduction

August 20, 2009

Disinclined by temperment from public displays of political or cultural emotion and painfully aware of the repurcussions that can be visited upon those who place themselves in a public setting, yet fundamentally disturbed and endlessly frustrated by the state of public and private discourse across our nation, I begin this journal with both trepidation and purpose.  And while the viciousness of our national discourse, especially those discourses surrounding important political and cultural issues, discourages me from raising my voice, it is this very viciousness that I will attempt to address and work against.

My immediate reference for this introductory post is the ongoing spectacle of impassioned, violent dissent foisted at Democratic representatives and senators during “Town Hall” meetings.  While I support healthcare reform and hope we achieve a healthcare system which meets the needs of all regardless of their income or citizenship status, my dismay at the ongoing spectacle of the Town Halls is not the presence of dissent nor is it the quickness with which so many dismiss any public or socialized option for vital services such as healthcare.  Dissent is protected and ought to be respected and we need a full airing of the costs and challenges of healthcare reform.

What disturbs me, chills me, and shakes me awake at night is the negativity of the discourse, the violence and isolating quality of so much that is offered forth in public venues.  I do not mean to suggest that we need bury our passions in a public setting.  Nor do I expect that public discourse be a dry recitation of facts and figures. 

Far too often public discourse employs phantoms of dissent and flames of passion to incite spectacles which reassure us of the intractablity of the situation.  And these spectacles are most visible when memes resonate in contradictory ways and driving us into stolidity or vehement agression.  There are countless examples of destructive gestures made in Town Halls with which we are all example.  The jokes about “lynching” the democratsThe evocation of Nazism and the HolocaustThe parading of guns and the whispering of death threats.  These moments freeze me, shock me, disturb me.  They make me shake with anger as a heavy weight of fear and frustration overcomes me.  I lose the ability or the patience to speak clearly and constructively.  I lose sight of my beleifs and my patience.  I cease being a contributer to or dissenter within discourse and either shut down or flame anew with angered passion, feeding the spectacle.

I recognize, of course, that polemic and agitprop are deployed to elicit that reaction, among others.  I get angry and froth.  Other become excited, energized, the base awakens.  And, I am fully aware that some form of polemic will exist and needs to exist.

My underlying frustration, however, is the seepage of rancorous, divisive rhetorics into most public discourse.  We’ve lost the ability to solve problems–to move forward in positive, constructive ways–because we have lost the ability to talk with each other. 

How can we reshape discourse and thereby move society forward to a place in which the common good is both the ways, the means, and end purpose of our decision making?  More importantly, how can our educational institutions help craft a more inclusive community and a more inclusive discourse?  I want to use this space to consider how we can respond to and refashion public discourse through education, specifically how we can use the spaces of the composition and cultural/American studies classroom to form stronger, more inclusive discursive communities.

Although I have strong feelings regarding political economy, I do not structure this space as a venue for left/liberal proselytizing or organizing.  Rather, I want to take seriously inclusive, productive discourse which solves problems by hearing the voices of all and serves the common good.  I have named this space “For the Commonweal” and would like to use this forum to offer commentary and invite dialogue which will seek to examine and pursue an inclusive, progressive discourse in which the greater good is the motivating force and the purposive end. 

This will not be a “political” blog.  That is, it will not be concerned with public policy or economic challenges.  Nor will it be a social blog.  I will not be considering or engaging in armchair social speculation.  Rather, this will be a blog rooted in and often about pedagogy.  My entries will draw heavily from my observations of public and mediated discourse and will consider them as evidence of the discourses which impact our students and our classrooms, to say nothing of ourselves.  More importantly, it will reflect upon and reference my own work in the classroom teaching composition and American Studies as well as my work researching race and communal identity in the cultures of the postwar U.S. South. 

 

A small point of clarification: I recognize that Commonweal is the name of a longstanding Roman Catholic publication.  While the importance of Commonweal’s liberal voice in the church community merits my admiration in equal measure to my respect for the Catholic faith in which I was raised and the deep commitment to social and environmental justice of many Catholics, including those in religious orders and lay people, I do not mean to suggest affiliation or attachment to the journal.

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One Response to “Comments on Dissent and Spectacle (The Town Hall Edition): an Introduction”

  1. Karin Says:

    Well, the first step might be to emphasize Rogerian argument. Instead of starting each discussion with the various positions on an issue, start with the common goals, the many ways that we all agree with one another. The Aristotle approach seems rigid. Make your claim. Support your claim. Defend your claim. It’s hard to teach Rogerian, or rather it’s hard for students to pick it up, because they’re so use to more straightforward way of arguing and thinking. I’m guilty of it. But I really do think they’d be open to other perspectives if they started with the common goal and worked toward it.


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