Engaging in the Public Sphere

A few months ago I met Rick Anderson at a conference. I introduced myself by saying, “I wanted to meet you in person since we argue so much online.” Someone with Rick asked, “so who wins the arguments?” I said that nobody ever wins arguments, and Rick followed with a pithy couplet saying the same thing. Pity I can’t remember it, because it was catchy and very appropriate. The question some people might have is, if no one ever wins arguments, why does anyone argue? And if we’re not arguing, what are we doing?

Answering the first question is easy. We argue because we want to win. People can rationalize it any way they want. They’re searching for the truth. They want to “set the record straight.” The want to put some schmucks in their place. But almost always, the underlying motive to arguing is to win, and following a fierce argument between worthy competitors will usually take you through a maze of arguments designed to shift the attention to something else whenever things go wrong. “Oh, you think you have me there? Well what about this tenuously related thing you probably don’t have a response to? Let’s talk about that!” Sometimes this is just tedious. Sometimes it can be fun, like a game. But it’s rarely persuasive.

Some people, maybe most people, don’t understand this. They write and speak as if they’re really going to win, as if their opponents will stop and say, “you know what? You’re right. I give up.” That never happens, but some people just don’t care. They’ll keep arguing vigorously long after anyone pays attention to them. They’re the sad trolls in the comments section of just about anything online. They’re the angry ranters. They seek victory at all costs, and the response they hate the most is laughter. If you want to drive angry ranters over the edge, just start laughing at them. As Brian Fantana says, 60% of the time, it works every time.

Then there’s another category of argument, if we can call it argument. I definitely present arguments in this blog, but they’re generally not the sort of arguments meant to persuade opponents directly. In my last post, I made an argument about a poorly written article, but I wasn’t arguing with the article, and I definitely wouldn’t bother to argue with its author. It’s not worth my time or effort. I’m doing something, just as Rick Anderson and numerous other library writers are doing something, but what?

Depending on the situation, we’re doing a number of things. Perhaps foremost, we’re telling stories or framing narratives, not in the hope of persuading the opposition, but with the goal of providing a compelling narrative that someone might accept, maybe especially someone who hasn’t made a decision on the matter under discussion. In rhetorical terms, we’re practicing the three rhetorical appeals: to logos, ethos, and pathos. We lay out reasons for our beliefs (logos). We present ourselves as certain kinds of people (ethos), hopefully the kind of people who are rational, intelligent, considerate, even-handed, the kind of people you want to agree with, that you might respect even if you don’t like them. And sometimes, if it’s appropriate, we bring in an emotional appeal (pathos).

I’ll provide an example from my own writing, the final paragraph of my book Libraries and the Enlightenment (which, hint hint, you can purchase here):

In the midst of this, libraries and the Enlightenment project both continue their struggle. With all of the ignorance, hatred, bigotry, violence, poverty, insecurity, and uncertainty in the country, both libraries and the Enlightenment can still provide hope for better days. Libraries are still places where people can find enlightenment, education, and enrichment. They are not warehouses for old books, as some people think, but active, thriving places where ideas clash and cultures engage, where values other than the strictly commercial survive and inspire, places people can go, physically or virtually, and emerge better people, their lives improved and through them perhaps our society improved. Extending or maintaining that possibility for all people equally, however achieved, remains a goal and a triumph for libraries and the Enlightenment.

This is the summation of the preceding arguments, and I provided reasons for linking the development of academic and public libraries to the Enlightenment goals of reason and freedom. I also present myself as a certain sort of person: calm, rational, maybe slightly detached and yet hopeful. Finally, there is an emotional appeal. Do you passionately dislike hatred and bigotry? Does personal and social improvement give you a good feeling? Then you should like libraries and the Enlightenment and you should agree with me. Within that, I’m using god and devil words. Education and enrichment, good; ignorance and hatred, bad! Unfortunately, appeals to ethos and pathos receive a lot of unjustified hostility as modes of argument, especially from philosophers. That’s probably why philosophers don’t do very well when trying to persuade the public, because most people are persuaded by ethos and pathos.

To use a non-library example, consider a person’s position on gay marriage. Whatever that position is, it’s almost certainly not motivated by rational thought alone. Most of the people I know are probably either in favor of, or indifferent to, gay marriage. The closest most of their positions, including mine, come to logic is probably something like this: People should be able to get married legally. Homosexuals are people. Therefore, homosexuals should be able to get married legally. Opponents of gay marriage might claim its about “natural law,” but it’s probably more motivated by the “yuck factor.” “Eww, gays are gross. They have sex with each other, even the men. Sex between men is gross. Why am I thinking about it all the time? Because it’s gross!” It’s the Santorum approach. Then every once in a while, something strange happens. Let’s say you’re a Republican senator and an opponent of gay marriage, because who cares what the gays want. But then your son comes out as gay, and you realize that the son you raised and love doesn’t fit as comfortably into the category of “those gays I don’t like” as complete strangers do. A transformation occurs. “The gays” as a category of the Other melts away. My son is a person. People are allowed to marry. So of course he should be allowed to marry.

People change their minds about contentious issues not because of logical arguments, but because of human sympathy and its capacity to erode familiar and comforting categories, categories that make us feel good by making us feel superior. “Wait, what? Homosexuals are just people? What about the blacks? Or the Muslims? Damn, even the Republicans? And the rednecks? And the homeless? Isn’t there anybody left I can hate indiscriminately just for fitting into a category of people I arbitrarily assigned them to? But I want to hate people. And then I want to rant angrily about why everyone else should hate them. Have I told you lately about vaginas and anuses?”

Angry ranters and belligerent interlocutors believe they’ll win by crushing, but that’s not what happens. They just put people off. Beliefs, rationales, ideologies, movements rarely succeed because they’ve crushed opponents with excellent arguments. They succeed because they compel enough people to accept them, usually people who weren’t directly engaged in the discussion or argument. If I’m writing about rhetoric or open access or information literacy, I’m not trying to browbeat people into submission. I’m trying to provide a compelling framework of beliefs and arguments that people can try out as they read through them. Part of that is logical, part ethical, and sometimes part emotional. If you agree with me, fine. If you don’t, fine. But on the stuff I write about, some day, somewhere, someone might want to find out more about the topic. They might Google it and they might run across some of my writing. And those people might say, “hey, that makes a lot of sense. Maybe I should think about this more.” Maybe other people are looking for ways to bolster their beliefs, or to strengthen their arguments against mine.

So that’s what I think a lot of us are doing when we engage with each other in the public sphere. We’re not necessarily arguing directly with each other. We’re creating rhetorical spaces for others to play around in for a while and telling stories others might find compelling enough to use as their own. And unlike the angry ranters, we don’t believe in victory. We just do what we do and hope for the best.

2 thoughts on “Engaging in the Public Sphere

  1. Back in the early sixties, Art Hoppe of the San Francisco Chronicle spoke to one of your paragraphs (“People change…”) with a series of columns that became a book, “The Love Everybody* Crusade (* Except Antarcticans) “–and by “Antarcticans,” Hoppe meant “penguins.”

    You just have to pick the right people to regard as inferior and not worthy of equal rights. Personally, I favor Venusians.

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