Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Abortion Debate and Social Media: A Space for Agonistic Rhetoric

This post is not about abortion. I know that I have readers who identify as pro-life and readers who identify as pro-choice. I'm not trying to persuade or even really comment on either of those positions.

But abortion is one topic where emotions run particularly high, and that makes it a place where we can see the way rhetoric operates in our society. This is a post about rhetoric.

So, here goes.

Today, I shared a wonderful picture on Facebook that someone I follow had shared. Here's the photo from its original source, a blog called Strawberry Mohawk that I hadn't heard of but that looks like a really fun site. When I saw it, I was immediately inspired by the themes that it tied together: motherhood, work, power, feminism, breastfeeding, and beauty. Here, take a look:

Used with permission--thanks Strawberry Mohawk! 
But that's not where the post I saw on Facebook came from. It was being shared by a group called New Wave Feminists. I didn't think anything of it when I first shared it, but later I clicked on their page and saw that they are a pro-life group that has set themselves up as "reclaiming" feminism for a pro-life cause. 

When I saw this, my stomach turned. My immediate thought was to go and delete the post that I had "shared" from my Facebook feed. I didn't want to be associated with a pro-life agenda, mainly because I don't really like being involved in that particular debate but also because, if you really press me to pick a side, that's not the side I'm going to pick. I was afraid that--just by sharing this picture--I was sending a message about myself and my beliefs that could immediately alienate a lot of my blog readers and Facebook friends and maybe cost me a few points in the online feminist community. 

So, I started to delete it. Then I stopped myself. I went back to the New Wave Feminists website. I read a little (not all of it, so I can't vouch for everything there). I can say, without a doubt, that I disagree with almost everything this website is saying. They are anti-Planned Parenthood and anti-birth control (and I am absolutely, unequivocally in support of both). They are very clearly anti-abortion. 

But I'm a big girl. I know that not everyone in the world thinks the way that I think. And, furthermore, I know that I can learn by reading and thinking about views that are different from mine. And as far as views that are different from mine go, this particular website does a good job of at arguing in clear, non-inflammatory rhetoric. The tone feels to me as if these are real people with real lives who are arguing for what they believe in--you know, just like I do. Just because I don't happen to come to the same conclusions as they do doesn't mean I have to stick my fingers in my ears and run in the opposite direction. 

In fact--and this is where it might get a little tricky--I think that listening to them makes my arguments stronger. 

It's called agonistic rhetoric (and it happens to be the foundation of what's looking to be my dissertation topic, so I've been submerged in it quite a bit lately). 

A Dualistic View of Rhetoric

To give a (rather simplistic) overview, a lot of talk about rhetoric tends to place it into a dualistic framework. At one end we have collaborative rhetoric and at the other end we have antagonistic rhetoric. 

While both of these forms of rhetoric have their uses (and I'm a huge fan of cooperative rhetoric as a whole, because--as the hippy, crunchy nature of some of my posts might have suggested--I'm all about getting along with one another), our tendency to boil everything down to their simplest components and then pit them against one another means that--even among very intelligent academics--the way that we think of these forms of rhetoric often ends up looking like a group of people sitting around a campfire whispering poems about kitties and rainbows to one another (cooperative rhetoric) on one end and a cluster of unhinged lunatics holding knives to each other's throats (antagonistic rhetoric) on the other. 

In addition to grossly oversimplifying these two rhetorical approaches, this sort of dichotomy completely ignores the fact that not all conflict has to be negative. In fact, recognizing that we start from places of difference in our discussions gives us the opportunity to have a conversation that could actually have an impact on the issue at hand. 

Bringing in Agonism

Again, I'm oversimplifying these ideas both so that I can work on wrapping my own mind around them and because this is a blog post, not a book. For the sake of this argument, we can think of two people who are going to get into a discussion about a topic. 

In cooperative rhetoric, those two people are going to work from a place of--as the name suggests--cooperation. The goal of cooperative rhetoric is usually to set aside differences and find the common ground in order to work towards the same goal. You can think of the beer summit Obama orchestrated between Henry Louis Gates and the policeman who stopped him at his front door as an example of this. The goal is to get along. 

In antagonistic rhetoric, the goal is to win the debate--at any cost. Often, one person in this debate is better prepared because s/he knew that there was going to be a debate (usually because he/she started it)  and the opponent didn't. For the purposes of this discussion, you could think of antagonistic rhetoric as a mugger waiting at the end of a dark alley. The mugger doesn't care if the opponent is harmed, isn't concerned about making the fight fair, and plans to "win" at any cost. 

Finally, in agonistic rhetoric, both opponents recognize that there is going to be a fight, but that fight doesn't have to be hateful. You can liken agonism to a boxing match. The opponents are both aware of the event in advance, they are both trained in the art, and there are some rules and parameters to keep the fight fair. Also, the opponents aren't trying to utterly destroy one another. While a win is still important, so is sportsmanship. 

Boxing match

Benefits of Agonism

Patricia Roberts-Miller has this to say about agonism:
Furthermore, the competition is not ruthless; it does not imply a willingness to triumph at all costs. Instead, it involves something like having such a passion for ideas and politics that one is willing to take risks. One tries to articulate the best argument, propose the best policy, design the best laws, make the best response. This is a risk in that one might lose; advancing an argument means that one must be open to the criticisms others will make ofit. The situation is agonistic not because the participants manufacture or seek conflict, but because conflict is a necessary consequence of difference. -From "Fighting Without Hatred"
Risk. A boxing match includes certain risks that sitting down for a beer or even attacking someone in an alley doesn't have. If you choose an equally skilled opponent, you may lose.

But that risk comes with benefits as well. As Walter Ong discusses in his book Fighting for Life:
in order to know myself, I must know that something else is not me and is (in some measure) set against me (15)
In other words, setting ourselves against that which we are not has the potential to give us a great understanding of what we are.

Ong goes on to say:
truth is symphonic. A symphony involves many instruments or voices struggling against or with one another--in a contest, 'against' and 'with' come to the same thing. (33)
The idea is that the strongest argument cannot exist unless it has other strong arguments with which to contend. You may very well be right about your position (as your passion and your logic tells you you are), but if you do not allow yourself to test that argument, then it is not productive. It is not illuminating truth.

In order to hone his/her skills to their finest, a boxer must take on the strongest competitors. In order to hone an argument to its strongest, a rhetor must test it against the most worthy opponents.

To put it another way, we can turn to the Biblical proverb:
Iron sharpens iron.   

Back to the Point: Facebook Pictures and Abortion

All of that to say that I think I was wrong. My reaction when I saw that the picture (which I loved) was being used by a pro-life group shouldn't make me shy away from sharing the picture.

I recognize that abortion is a particularly heated topic--perhaps our most heated topic--but this really applies to just about everything we argue about. If we're afraid to be seen even associating with the "other side," then we're not really entering into true discourse. We're setting up echo chambers. We may say that we're doing this to support cooperative rhetoric, but is that true?

In fact, I think that picture and the way it's being used does more to set up cooperative rhetoric than anything else. Here's an amazing picture of a breastfeeding mom and it's being shared by those who are vehemently pro-life and pro-choice alike. What does that mean?

To me, that means that there is a lot of common ground that gets lost in these debates. There are a lot of values and experiences that people on both sides of this issue share. I think that if we recognized that and started from that place, we could then handle the fact that we may have to be opponents on some other elements of the debate.

It's like, after we sit down and have the beer summit together, we can get up and box it out--on even footing. (Wait, would we be drunk? Does that make it a fair fight anymore? I think I'm mixing metaphors. You get the point, right?)

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, we have to believe enough in our arguments to be willing to test them, and that means that we can't just run screaming from opposition. It also means that we need to be willing to test them fairly and not wait at the end of a dark alley to batter unsuspecting opponents over the head with arguments they aren't prepared to counter.

I've made a vow to be better at practicing this kind of rhetoric myself, and--for me--that means not bristling at the first sign of dissension. I am strong. I can dissent as well.

Picture: CT State Library (boxing)

1 comment:

  1. I think it is a beautiful picture and just because one group is using it to support their own agenda doesn't mean they have "claimed" it to stand only for what they believe. What it says to them isn't what says to you; and what it says to you isn't what it is going to say to everyone on you friends list either.