here is the reading digest I’ll turn in for critical social theory on Tuesday:
Wednesday night, after a short week of classes before Thanksgiving, I sat in Bombs Away, one of my favorite bars to sit and chat with others in. Two other English department GTAs and I were holding a lively and hopeful discussion about what we were doing at GTAs and as future teachers. We lamented our theses, how there was little â€œso whatâ€œ to them because no one would read them. I countered that we could use them to learn for ourselves, use them to earn privilege (our degrees) and then continue to educate others, create spaces for discussion, create spaces for critical thinking, and also write and engage with the world in more engaged ways than a thesis sitting in Valley Library. My take on all this was informed, of course, by Habermas and Young. I have really begun liking both of them.
But what happened next really sold me on Iris Marion Young’s work. I felt like I was honestly in a salon, holding discussions about gender, graduate school, social change, sexuality, and so much more and coming to agreement and similar terms in a bar â€” if only more people were there. I also felt like I was learning more in that hour and a half conversation than I had in most of my classes (perhaps only this one and a few others have been as engaging). But then a friend of ours sat down, and the way we communicated changed. It wasn’t bad at first â€” just different. But then she called a professor of ours an â€œinsecure pansy,â€œ and I said, â€œI’d like you to reconsider the use of the word pansy,â€œ explaining the way it is used to categorize feminine men and make a strict definition of masculinity â€” that, and it used a feminizing word, akin to pussy that equates feminine characteristics to negative characters. Also, I stated that the word had been used against me and was insulting to me, and quite possibly to other men in the bar.
I soon found that our friend and I were engaged in an ever-increasing performance of agonism, going back and forth, the stakes and argumentative style becoming more structured as we went. I noticed that my friend Sarah was not able to get a word in edge-wise because she is not as aggressive a communicator, and it became very uncomfortable as our friend made her last argument backed up by claims, furthermores and therefores, and insistent movements of her hands. I said, â€œI have to stop here because I am uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable because we are still tossing around the word pansy and even the n-word [which was used in comparison] and because our conversation is increasingly agonistic [a word which I realized was a mistake and jargonistic when she stated she didn’t know what that meant].â€œ I’ve always wanted to value narrative and other forms of argument, but I realized that what was being valued in that instant was an academic-agonistic style of argumentation that was very off-putting to me, to Sarah, and I think to our friend Nate as well, who remained silent throughout the debate. I think the word debate is accurate here instead of dialogue because the way we talked continued down the road of back-and-forth claims and defense. It appears that the type of discourse we valued in order to make meaning was not the type of discourse that is used by the majority of people, and the type of discourse that I wanted to value. I don’t know where our friend learned to argue like this â€” whether it is cultural (she is an immigrant), from her family, or from her years of schooling â€” but it became a style that was used, even unintentionally, to exclude those who were not versed in it.
I’ve read parts of Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe, which pretty much argues that we are in an argument culture and that we should explicitly teach our students what the conversations in our fields are and how to argue within those conversations. He takes to task Deborah Tannen in her book The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue because she argues against polemics, but does so in a way that Graff thinks is polemical. I haven’t read her book, but from what I am beginning to understand of Young, it appears that Graff is engaged in the type of deliberative democracy that Young notes is exclusionary: one of debate among those who can debate. Graff of course wants to include more people in that debate, but it seems it is not through valuing different types of discourses, but rather, through teaching more people to construct an academic-style argument. It is akin to saying: you will be smarter and more well-respected and listened to if you argue the way we do, and not saying, as I think it should, we should deconstruct the way we listen and the ways of speaking/writing we value so that we can include those who deserve to be included.
I’ve been interested for some time in listening and how we can listen more to each other. I think as long as we are engaged in this style of I must prove my point, we won’t be a listening culture. We stop listening in order to formulate our next argument. We aren’t interested in changing ourselves, but in changing others. We cannot give time to others to make arguments indifferent types of discourse, and, perhaps worst of all, we have no time to listen to suffering and pain because it is not part of the logical ways in which we argue. When I say, â€œWhat you say hurts me,â€œ and you do not listen because I have not properly defended an argument, you have not listened to me.
Of course, this brings me back to the body, and changing the way we desire and feel. Does this require more compassion? Does it require more attunement with our bodies to what others are saying and doing? Do we need to refocus with our eyes on what is going on around us and how so many people aren’t included in the conversations? Do we need to change where we stand: go and hold these conversations not in city halls and courthouses, but in ghettos and on farms? I’ll be happy when we all stop and say, â€œWhat I am hearing you say is…â€œ â€” a form, I think, of Young’s â€œGreeting,â€œ a recognition of the other person’s experiences, but I don’t think this can merely happen by telling people they must start doing it. I think it can only happen through emotive changes in society.