CCR 631: Contemporary Rhetorics

Technology and Deliberative Democracy

“[T]he problem of constituting an effective deliberative democracy for the 21st CE, particularly in an increasingly multicultural society, will require sustained attention to the range of ways in which rhetoric constitutes and is implicated in the process of public decision making.” (249)

This week, our readings focused on rhetoric, reason, and public morality. Goodnight jumpstarts the discussion by examining the status of deliberative rhetoric, which, in his opinion, is going downhill. By setting up a discussion of different spheres that we use to channel discourse practices—the personal, technical, and public—Goodnight argues that “the public sphere is being steadily eroded by the elevation of the personal and technical groundings of argument” (258). That is, though technical knowledge is becoming more refined (or elevated), public knowledge isn’t. So while politicians are using more technical rhetorical strategies to present more sophisticated arguments to their audiences, the public audiences themselves disappear. For Goodnight, this is in part due to the cultural narcissism of today’s public, the “me generation” (259). So instead of wanting to hear about the issues and make informed decisions, the public is fragmented over the personality and appearances of the politicians, hoping to hear something that will relate to their personal interests.

I both agree and disagree with this point. It’s silly to disagree with the idea that there’s some issue with the public sphere, particularly when we’re talking politics. Politicians obviously talk a lot of game that they think we want to hear, and many of us buy it. If we didn’t, it would stop, right? However, I’m hesitant to buy the idea that mass media creates this “perpetual swirl of exciting stimuli” that causes consumption to replace deliberation (260). In many ways, this is also true. I think of all the public events I get invitations to on Facebook and see how many people have checked “yes” to attending—Do all of those people attend those events? Do they have an interest in those issues, or are they just saying they’re going because it’s cool? The fact that other people can see, and perhaps judge, that decision likely has some impact on these burgeoning political “activists” who agree to attending a march or demonstration but don’t follow through.

Goodnight’s article ends on a similar note, but I don’t think that’s the extent of the issue, particularly with today’s tech advancements. Look at any sort of political event that has been mediated through the ever-expanding communication technology that is Twitter. Twitter had a huge impact in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Occupy Wall Street, and—most recently—in last fall’s round of presidential debates. According to Mashable, the first presidential debate in Denver generated 10.3 million tweets in 90 minutes. This is obviously a staggering number, but what’s the significance to deliberative democracy in the public sphere?

This graph charts the 10.3 million tweets that occurred between 9 and 10:30 pm during the first round of 2012 presidential debates.
“Tracking the #Debates: Denver” (http://mashable.com/2012/10/04/presidential-debate-twitter/)

Twitter is a site that values narrative. Fisher defines narration as a “theory of symbolic actions—words and/or deeds—that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create, or interpret them” (266), and Twitter certainly acts as a public space for the narration of people’s daily lives, experiences, and interpretations of events. As a space that collects and dispenses these narratives, Twitter meets Fisher’s critieria for public moral argument; that is, tweets are “publicized, made available for consumption and persuasion of the polity at large” and are “aimed at what Aristotle called ‘untrained thinkers” (276). And, what I like best about Twitter is that it serves as a space where “public moral argument is a form of controversy that inherently crosses fields” (276). Although I tend to just follow other Rhet/Comp folks, I’ve had a lot of (academic) interdisciplinary interactions and, of course, lots of interactions with people outside academia who share similar interests.

One thing to note is that Goodnight’s discussion of technology is dated, and it’s unfair to critique it solely on those grounds. The mass media referenced are likely radio and television, which are, by their very nature, communication technologies based on consumption rather than (deliberate) production. With read-write web technologies, however, there are more options for the public to do more than just consume information and technology (although the Facebook example also shows how this isn’t always the case, either).

This is where Condit enters the scene. Unlike the previous authors, Condit argues that “it is possible and preferable to maintain a theory that recognizes collective discourse as the source of an active public morality” (306). And this theory relies on the notions that public morality is constructed, implemented, and improved through public argument (308).

To expand on that for a moment, Condit argues against the idea that individual desires are inherently degrading  to public rhetoric; instead, she writes, “It is precisely the practice of public rhetoric that converts individual desires into something more—something carrying moral import, which can anchor the will of the community” (309). Then, once these individual desires are shared publically, they engage in a process of determining “shared moral codes” (311). That is, people act based on particular principles and a sense of what they “ought” to do in a particular situation in particular spaces. This argument gets a little slippery because shared moral codes very quickly turn into normative practices that necessarily include and exclude particular behaviors, practices, and people.

However, Condit is quick to note this herself: “Such codes are generated by human collectives, yet they also formulate objective restraints on humanity” (314). That is, sometimes when we create these codes, we rely so heavily on them that we are resistant to creating newer and—sometimes—better codes. Condit warns that if “we reify the current best principles, we put ourselves exactly in the position of the Southern slaveholders in 1850—we preserve an old moral order at the cost of a newer, broader one” (319).

Although I am never going to laud technology as our savior, I think particular types of social media—with how quickly they change and adapt—are a perfect example for thinking about the way that we must also adapt and collectively “craft” our own social codes.

So back to the example of the presidential debates. At first glance, the overarching answer might be a simple no, tweeting during the debate is not significant because as Patrick Ruffini (a political media strategist) wrote, “I’m engrossed in Twitter and engrossed in my own personal consumption of the debate itself as opposed to what’s said on screen.” This feeds right back into what Goodnight was saying about public consumption and individual human desire. And, for any of us who tweet during events like this, we can likely see the truth in this statement. I tweeted that debate, and there were moments where I was so caught up in my own thoughts and reading those on my news feed that I actually missed some of the big ideas said by Obama and Romney.

But, it’s also not that simple. In an age where politicians and reporters alike mourn the voting public’s lack of engagement, Twitter engages people in the political sphere. It gets people talking about ideas and talking with each other. You see tweets on the news now; news programs ask people to “vote” on different topics through Twitter, which necessarily influences the content of the news itself. And because Twitter infiltrates news stories and programs, people who aren’t even on Twitter are impacted by the narratives people tweet. That, in itself, is significant.

When Romney threatened to cut PBS funding in that debate, people on Twitter went wild, collectively crafting arguments that expressed their shock/outrage/disagreement and simultaneously their shared values. Tons of memes and .gifs were created, an account was made for Big Bird lauding Romney, and Obama even used it as a chance to create a commercial after all was said and done.

Social media offer channels to do more than just consume information and politics. In the example of Twitter, it offers a space for the public to come together and collectively craft a rhetorical culture that draws on the community’s history and experience in order to live (rather than consume) events through narrative.


 

Condit, Michelle. “Crafting Virtue: The Rhetorical Construction of Public Morality.” 306-25.

Fisher, Walter R. “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument.” 265-87.

Goodnight, G. Thomas. “The Personal, Technical, and Public Sphere of Argumentation: A Speculative Inquiry into the Art of Public Deliberation.” 251-64.

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