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Reciprocity and 21st century liberalism


In Madison, Wisconsin this weekend for the biennial Public Address Conference, I had the pleasure tonight to hear a most interesting keynote address given by John Murphy, a communication scholar at the University of Illinois, as well as responses given by two of the field’s most productive scholars.  The talk was aimed to respond, one might say, to Danielle Allen’s Talking to Strangers:  Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (University of Chicago Press, 2006), which has gotten a very friendly reception in rhetorical studies because of the way in which she offers norms of reciprocated dialogue as a corrective to what she sees as increasingly extreme political practices of exclusion and polarization.  Allen’s argument sees such reciprocation as part of the solution to an increasingly problematic paradox of democratic politics:  even while democratic politics depends on “good losers” who will stick with the system and remain committed to its overall legitimacy even when they don’t win (elections, federally allocated benefits, and so on), liberalism also cultivates a tendency to a hyper-competitiveness so extreme as to deny the possibility of good losers.  More often, and this is in my view a fair diagnosis of the American political scene, individualistic competitiveness leads to triumphalism for the electoral victors and causes us to actually “loath the losers.”

The problem this creates is the emergence of now-significant segments of the national electorate who, having borne a disproportionate share of the burdens of representative government and having been long denied real access to electoral power (e.g., African Americans), are disillusioned with the whole system, distrustful of government, and unwilling to play a game they find forever rigged for the benefit of others.  Allen blames a lot of this on what she sees as the too-ready acceptance of the political theories of the Germans (Kant, Habermas, etc.), who incline commentators on the American political scene to see the problem as “too little deliberation,” who often disdain the everyday practices of political persuasion, and who seem to simply prefer a system that attains consensus (even at the expense of broader legitimation).  Allen sees the result as a kind of stunted liberalism, bleeding away its legitimacy, and in need of a good (small-r) republican dose of what she calls a “citizenship of friendship” that would commit either to a reformed Aristotelian republicanism (stripped of its historical disdain for public persuasion) or Habermasean deliberative democracy (stripped of its strong interest in consensus formation as the central purpose of political interaction).

If I’m rightly recalling Allen’s position (and in Madison I’m away from my copy of the book), and if I understood him correctly, Murphy agrees with Allen on the diagnosis (liberalism has inclined too far in the direction of hyper-individualism), but not with her solution.  His concern is that scholars like Allen (and, he says, a number of communication theorists) revert to conceptions of engaged citizenship that require levels of attention and engagement that are simply unrealistic, and perhaps even unnecessary, in a frenetically globalized 24-7 information glutted world.  Far better, he argued, to reclaim the rhetorical resources of liberalism itself – the mechanisms by which speech can induce identification and empathy, both at the level of content and form – for the purpose of redeeming the American polity.

Kennedy’s summer speeches at American University, where he called for a new conception of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, and regarding events at Little Rock, which articulated a case for racial civil rights, provide for Murphy exemplars for such a purpose.  Resisting interpretations that read Kennedy as either enacting Cold War realism or performing America’s civil religion, Murphy rightly focused on the norms and tropes of reciprocity that might induce a level of trust sufficient to adequate self-government.  In articulating the norms of respective engagement with racial difference, for Kennedy to invite his circa 1960’s white audiences to imagine themselves as African American was not an empty thought experiment but a striking challenge to the national imagination and a provocation to political transformation.

Professor Murphy’s address invited a wide range of questions:  Was Kennedy’s rhetoric truly exemplary of liberalism as inflected by the American experience, or were the features of his public addresses simply idiosyncratically Sorenson?  Was the potential effectivity of Kennedy’s mode of address fulfilled or obliterated by the rhetorical practices of Lyndon Johnson?  Is the sort of reciprocity Kennedy practiced suitable to the complicated challenges presented today by issues like same-sex marriage, and more broadly, the problem identity politics poses for a wider liberal politics?  Can rhetorical reciprocity ever actually give voice to the historically disenfranchised – to women, to blacks, to Native Americans?  Or is even well-intentioned speech that tries to do justice to the experiences of marginalization suffered by others doomed to fail, since the actually resulting norms and legal regimes that seek to institutionalize equality are likely to favor the powerful who draft them?  Is the creation of public trust in government even desirable at a time when a politics of suspicion may be more suitable to the circumstances of insider government and barely concealed cronyism?  And would a rhetorical practice more fully committed to strategies of enacted reciprocity actually be effective?

I am both intrigued and unsure of whether the rhetorical resources of liberalism illuminated by John Kennedy’s speeches, even conceding the multiple strategies the ideology enables for creating community as opposed to simple hyper-individuality, are suitable to the changed conditions of public argument.  And this is a question that Prof. Murphy seemed to raise – I thought I understood him at one point to be claiming that a redeemed liberal rhetoric was more suitable to a populace too busy to engage in the time-intensive practices of debate and “good government” than the (potentially naive) campaigns to convert America’s citizens into full-time policy makers or investigative reporters.  Because that particular issue could not be fleshed out in the limited time allocated to the keynote, I won’t presume to speculate on how such a view might be fully defended.  But I confess to skepticism.

For example:  in a culture where a 24/7 media environment is dominated by commentators always at work to sow distrust about political opponents (I refer to the Ann Coulter strategy of equating liberalism with treason, although even more reasonable talking heads follow similar argumentative paths), is it reasonable to think that political speech emphasizing empathy for the other will succeed in inducing trust among endlessly distracted viewers?  Or, putting the same point differently, in a society whose hyper-busy citizens increasingly self-segregate (white middle class kids go to religious academies or charter schools or are home schooled with other white middle class kids, rich families live with other rich families behind secure iron gates, etc.), can we plausibly expect that even a radical shift in the nation’s public rhetorical culture might break through the tunnel vision perspectives that come from mainly living in the absence of strangers?

And would a more fully embraced norm of reciprocity be strong enough even to begin to compensate for trumped up climates of panic (such as the Communist scares), mortal dread (such as induced and then hyped by the Osama bin Laden attacks), and apocalyptic speaking-in-tongues fundamentalism (such as apparently shared by Gov. Palin)?  In an age where critical thinking and reasoning skills seem too often undernourished at the very time when the most vexing public policy matters require ever more sophisticated knowledge (climate science, financial market modeling, and so on), is the answer really to be found in rhetorical practices that might only further narrativize public controversy, perpetuating (in the name of reciprocity) the kind of vacuous I’m running for President for Bobby, who lost his legs because his insurance claim was denied appeals that seem to give voice to the powerless but mainly as a cheap campaign trick to tug at the heart strings?

Of course to frame the case for a more articulate liberalism within the contours of Allen’s book risks implying a binary choice that is recognizably false to students of rhetorical history.  That is, the strong case Allen makes for citizenship as (intensive) friendship, as opposed to citizenship as litigation or winner-take-all debating society, while it does evoke the apparently contradicting impulse to imagine a contrary citizenship based on empathy, implies a both/and logic foreign to a broadly humanistic rhetorical tradition that has always seen a place among the practices of persuasion for appeals both to rationality (logos) and reciprocity/empathy (pathos).  This point leads to a very modest quibble with Prof. Murphy’s strategy of evidencing the claim for rhetorical reciprocity based solely on a textual analysis of these two significant addresses.  For me it is telling that Kennedy delivered these speeches to academic audiences, before groups of students and professors for whom appeals to the shared human condition would typically be heard as supplemental to the critical-rational norms of university scholarship.  One might alternatively read Kennedy’s addresses less as posing a radically alternative liberal rhetorical practice than as offering a simple (but nonetheless effective) supplement to the norms of public deliberation that would have been familiar to the professors and graduates within earshot.

It is certainly the case that practices of public engagement that solely obsess over consensus formation and critical-rational argument will fail to redeem the promise of an authentically emancipatory liberalism, and it is right to criticize such an approach for making unrealistic demands on a frazzled and distracted citizenry.  But I wonder whether appeals grounded in empathetic reciprocity, especially if offered as fast decisional heuristics for viewers too distracted to explore the issue in-depth, will fare any better?  I’m skeptical in part because although the demands of rhetorical education are much higher when true deliberation is the goal, the possible payoff is greater too, for it may be easier finally to inoculate audiences against flawed reasoning than against endlessly nurtured and corrosive cynicism.

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