I was struck this morning by a poster put up by a student group encouraging students to come to a discussion about social class. The poster quotes a typified person saying that class isn’t very important (I’m paraphrasing here) and follows by suggesting that anyone who thinks this can get educated by coming to the meeting.
That’s a generally typical rhetorical strategy for trying to appeal to people for political or social discussions and meetings on a college campus or elsewhere, across a broad political spectrum. “Think that there’s no genocide in the world? Come learn the truth!”, or “Want to know the truth about liberal propaganda? Come hear our speaker!”.
There’s a kind of perverse logic embedded within the appeal, though. The audience allegedly addressed by the poster or notice is never actually the audience who responds to the information, or rarely so. If you were already dubious about the analytic or political significance of social class in contemporary American life, or otherwise thought it was an uninteresting or unimportant issue, you’d hardly be likely to come to a meeting where it’s an apparent axiom that you’re completely wrong. Unless, perhaps, you were an unusually ornery or confrontational person who enjoyed disrupting the meetings of people whom you oppose.
So who usually is informed by such a poster and then comes to a meeting advertised as such, besides the people who are convening it? Those who agree with the implied premise of the notice but didn’t know about the group, those who have a pre-existing political commitment to the cause described in their own group and want to work out how to relate to the new group, and those who are anxious to signify their willingness to subscribe to the political beliefs implied in the notice and learn more about how to make good on that willingness.
Maybe a few of the latter will be surprised or dismayed by what they see, and drift away. Maybe a few of the already-committed will conclude that the new effort is chasing its own tail in some respect and turn away, or maybe a few politically committed attendees will decide that the new group is more organized and exciting than their existing commitments and jump ship.
In any event, such an appeal is about building constituencies, not exploring a problem. That’s where the (very typical) rhetorical gesture towards conversation or discussion or exploration, towards opening up a shared problem, is at the least misfounded, at the worst cynically performed. A group that assembles to ask, “Is social class really an issue?” with the intent of exploration has to start with as serious an acceptance of the probability that the answer will be “no” as it will be “yes”.
There’s nothing wrong with forming political groups along the lines of existing political commitments, of trying to get roughly like-minded people together for a common effort. I don’t like it when I see such efforts clouded by appeals for dialogue, conversation, exploration, however. On this campus and many others, I think those appeals are meant with great, in fact painful sincerity, which is a saving grace. But even so, it’s a terrible habit to get into, especially for students with liberal or left commitments, because it represents everyone with whom one disagrees as unenlightened, uninformed, as heathens yet-to-be converted to the true faith, not as people with worked-out convictions or even just some kind of substantive habitus which happens to diverge significantly from the premises of the group that’s trying to get together.
That’s the kind of bad habit that I think activists left and right have on a larger scale outside of campuses, leading to a kind of McEnroe-style incredulity when the inevitable encounter with serious dissent occurs, a bug-eyed cry of “You canNOT be serious”, as if it’s impossible that anyone could have a different view. The rhetorical hook of a poster becomes the philosophical presumption of a movement: that there is the cause, and then there are those who have yet to encounter the cause, nothing more.
Now if some of those posters are actually serious about the desire for exploration, something different is required, something much harder. If you can’t actually get someone with a principled position different than your own to sit down and talk openly with you (that’s obviously the best option), you almost have to assign members of your own group or circle of peers to represent those arguments in good faith. That takes a lot of work and a flexibility of mind. If everything is going right in a liberal arts curriculum, that’s part of what we should be teaching when we teach writing and speaking in our classrooms: how to know and represent the strongest arguments against one’s own position. Some days, I think we do a fair job of that. Other days, I worry and fret that we’re barely doing it at all.