“Rhetoric” is a word which often sounds negative, but the 2000-year-old discipline which I teach at Highline College has some valuable insights to offer our world in our present moment.
If our political system depends, at least in theory, on people making decisions over their own lives instead of trusting dictators to do it for them, then people must learn how to come to some kind of agreement about what to do together.
First, though, if these decisions are going to represent different needs and wants that people have, people must also learn to disagree effectively.
This is what the study of rhetoric is good for: learning to disagree productively, to persuade and allow oneself to carefully be persuaded without simply giving in to louder voices. (In the Pacific Northwest, famous for its passive aggressive indirectness, we are spectacularly bad at disagreement. Of course, we disagree all the time — but we often don’t know how to disagree well.)
Real rhetoric can only happen under very specific conditions.
It’s a lot easier to try to beat your opponent than to engage them and see if something will work for both of you.
Spaces for difficult conversations rely on trust, for people to speak their minds openly, and on equality, where people know they will be listened to enough for them to bother speaking in the first place.
People have to trust the conversation enough not to just give in, or give up.
Making space for honest, equal disagreement is not a simple matter – since such discussion has a way of bringing up embarrassing points for people in power, people in power often seek to prevent such discussions.
Such spaces are, however, essential for a just world. Recent protest movements such as the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter, which I write about in my recent book “Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used To Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance,” can be understood as desperate attempts to crowbar open public space for such awkward but necessary discussions.
The Occupy movement, copying the Tahrir revolution in Egypt, seized public squares in the center of town and turned them into rich places for argument and participation.
In the streets of Ferguson, Missouri (which I visited this summer), an “edge city” not unlike Federal Way in many ways, there was not even a public square to take over when residents had had enough of official racist violence; instead, they took over the streets between strip malls and box stores, and made them into a public venue where the unspeakable could finally be said.
When the city deployed tanks to force the protesters out, this exactly proved the protesters’ point, which is why the movement went national, and received global attention.
Now, in recent months, we are facing a strange paradox. Now that the unspeakable was finally spoken, many others reacted by saying, “I don’t want to hear it.”
This reaction even got into the White House.
But of course, if they used these words, it would prove the point of the people it was trying to shut up, just like the tanks in the streets of Ferguson.
So instead, they called this reaction “free speech.”
The irony, of course, is that what they are calling “free speech” isn’t free at all – it is nothing but the demand to shut up, shut down, and shut out those who finally gained a say after decades and centuries of silence.
If the possibility of real conversation across differences relies on creating spaces of trust and equality, then trying to end a conversation happens with the opposite of trust and equality, with calls for segregation, purges and violence.
This is what we are hearing today.
As the political philosopher Karl Popper states, “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance… We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”
If the only thing being said is that some people should be silenced, then that speech is meant to stop conversation, not create it. As a Jew fleeing the Holocaust, Popper knew that if we allow such speech, then we lose the space for real conversation in the first place.
If we are to fight for greater freedom and make space for greater speech, we have to be ready to tell the difference between free speech and its opposite.
And sometimes, words that call themselves “free speech” are actually the opposite.
Shon Meckfessel is English faculty at Highline College and the author of “Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used To Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance.” Meckfessel received his PhD in language and rhetoric from the University of Washington in 2014. He has been active in social movements for nearly 30 years. He has since researched and participated in social movements across the United States, Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.