Welcome to a special episode of Kairoticast! This episode is part of The Big Rhetorical Podcast’s annual podcast Carnival.
The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival takes place August 16-19, 202. This is the 2nd Annual Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival, and they hope to grow their list of participants and listenership going forward.
The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival hashtags: #tbrpodcastcarnival2021 and #contendingwithmisinformation.
The Big Rhetorical Podcast will feature a keynote interview for the podcast carnival. This episode will be released August 19th. The keynote speaker for The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival is Dr. Renee Hobbs, Professor of Communication Studies at the Harrington School of Communications and Media and Founder of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island.
The theme of this year’s Carnival is “Contending with Misinformation in the Community and the Classroom.” We have chosen to focus a bit more on the classroom side of things for our episode and will be looking at the ideas of objectivity, neutrality, and the “both sides” approach.
For much of my teaching career I spent a good deal of energy trying to remain objective or non-partisan. I might drop hints at what I thought here and there, and I would certainly give my students tools to come to conclusions that I thought made sense, but I didn’t see it as my job to comment on the actual content. I tried very hard to present multiple sides to various issues.
Sarah Palin pushed my limits. I am a teacher of argumentation and politics. I could not in good conscience teach “all sides” during the McCain/Obama campaign because Palin was such a disaster. If I am going to say I am for good, reasonable, sound arguments then I could not say anything positive about Sarah Palin. And I told my students that. And I think it surprised them. I remember when a group of students asked who I thought would win the VP debate and I told them it wasn’t even a contest UNLESS Biden made her look so bad he ended up looking like a bully and she walked away with a sympathy victory because there was no way she could hold her own and a group of students looked completely crestfallen, but I was unapologetic. A good argument is a good argument. And she has yet to make one.
But in my mind, I was still being as objective as I possibly could be – as an argumentation teacher. I wasn’t commenting on her or McCain’s policy. I didn’t get into the politics of it. I simply observed that she could not string three lucid sentences together if her life depended on it. This was my neutral observation from an argumentative standpoint. Content aside, she was making bad arguments. I didn’t tell my students that Biden had better policies. I told them he made better arguments. And in that way, I kept myself above the fray.
And then came the Trump years. And that was a game changer for me.
People throw words around like “Nazi” and “fascist” really easily these days. And that’s probably a disservice. I admit I’ve called Donald Trump these things. But I also believe he buys into some of the tenets of those philosophies. But even if I step away and say, “yeah, that might be hyperbolic,” I am absolutely convinced Trump is an authoritarian, he is anti-democratic, and he set out to thwart democracy and democratic norms every chance he got. I think he is one of the most dangerous men in America today, and that is made worse by the fact that he is bolstered by such lapdogs as Tom Cotton and Matt Gaetz.
I think perhaps the only man in America that rivals Trump for the damage he has done in America is Mitch McConnell, but he has done it institutionally and without all the pomp and fanfare. But when the story of America’s downfall is told I think Mitch McConnell will be a major character.
So what does that have to do with me as a professor?
Well, when Trump was running for president the first time, in 2015, my daughter was five. And you know if you are a regular listener that my daughter is a big part of my life. Parenthood is a major part of my identity. That’s a choice that I make.
And in 2015, and then in 2016, when I saw what was going on in American politics, I was horror-struck. It didn’t seem possible that this was happening.
And one day a thought occurred to me – what would I say to my daughter if she asked me one day, “Mom, when all that was going on, where were you? What did you do? Did you say anything?”
Granted, these thoughts struck me when I thought we were in our darkest hours. When I didn’t see a way out for America. But I couldn’t abide the idea that one day my daughter would ask me what I did in America’s time of trial, and I didn’t have an answer. And that led to a paradigmatic shift in my pedagogy.
Trump changed the way I teach because now I am willing to call lies what they are – lies. I am willing to call racism what it is – racism. I am quite sure I come across as a partisan in class in ways I didn’t years ago. But I don’t want to ever be asked “Did you say anything?” and have to answer, “No, I was trying to be objective.” Objectivity is a tool of the oppressor.
And the more I have explored this new approach the more I realize my old pedagogy was just a means of enshrining hegemony. Objectivity does nothing but protect whiteness, maleness, heteronormativity, and ableness. If you are going to be a force for justice, you have to be willing to move the needle. You can’t be a force for good and fight for those who are marginalized without taking a stand. Objectivity and non-partisanship is just a veneer for protecting the privileged.
If you don’t challenge oppression and the status quo in the name of objectivity, then you effectively silence the voice of justice and embolden the voice of the oppressor. Because the oppressor loves objectivity and the sterility of “neutrality.” Erasing the opportunity to challenge those in power in favor of objectivity or neutrality puts all the power in the hands of the oppressor, even if you don’t use their rhetoric, because you have effectively silenced the marginalized.
So, what does all of this have to do with misinformation? EVERYTHING.
In 2015 when I was teaching political rhetoric my students and I were talking about the debates, and we had a conversation about the role of the moderators. We had a bit of a debate on what they were supposed to do. Were they just supposed to ask questions and keep time, or was their job to call out lies and misinformation? If they are just supposed to ask questions and keep time, then they could be relatively “objective.” But if they called out lies then they were accused of bias. Which is ridiculous because it’s not biased to point out if something is untrue – but it LOOKS that way if it just so happens that one candidate lies SO MUCH MORE than any other candidate. This is what the Trump campaign was dealing with. Trump fought any kind of fact-checking ever, and if there was any, he claimed it was the media acting out against him, because he was such a constant liar. But calling out misinformation isn’t bias. It’s telling the truth.
Professors face this same conundrum in the classroom. Because facts and truth have been politicized, if a professor points out a lie or a piece of misinformation, they are accused of partisanship, even if they are simply pointing out the facts. So a professor is faced with a serious choice – do I speak the truth, or do I risk being labeled a partisan?
That’s why these questions of pedagogy are so important. If it is more important for somebody to appear objective, then they are going to have to forego the truth. If it is more important for somebody to speak the truth, then there is no way to remain objective. You have to make a call.
It’s very tempting to think well, if I just tell the objective truth in an effort to combat misinformation than I am not biased. But that’s not how it works. Facts and truth have been politicized and weaponized in this age of communication. That’s why misinformation is such a scourge. If you could simply combat it with facts, then there would be a simple solution. But you can’t and there isn’t.
When you combat misinformation with facts it is all too often a political act, because misinformation is political. So the facts, themselves, are political. They may be objectively true, but they are not neutral or apolitical.
And we have seen how dangerous this is in the last year-and-a-half.
Medical and scientific experts have been pleading with us to social distance, wear masks, and get vaccinated. These are simple, safe ways to mitigate Covid-19. And these are the facts. This is how you deal with this, or any similar virus. But beginning with the Trump administration it became a political game. There seemed to be a race to see who could show their conservative chops and deny the science the fastest. Masks became politicized and conspiracies about the vaccine spread. We KNOW what the facts are. But they are secondary to politics.
And the results have been the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
We can’t “both sides” our way out of this situation. There was a time when I thought part of my job was to present all sides of an issue fairly and let my students decide, but that doesn’t make sense anymore. When one side of an issue is dishonest, malicious, and dangerous it is unethical of me to present any part of it.
There’s a tradition in rhetoric called “Dissoi logoi.” The exercise is intended to help an individual gain deeper understanding of an issue by forcing them to consider it from the angle of their opponent, which may serve either to strengthen their argument or to help the debaters reach compromise. In ancient Greece, students of rhetoric would be asked to speak and write for both sides of a controversy.
The exercise considers demonstrating contrasting arguments in a single oration a method of demonstrating skill. Protagoras stated that every argument had two contradicting sides, both of which could be argued. Aristotle supported this idea by stating that it is necessary to think in opposites to anticipate counterarguments and to arrive at the true state of an idea, object, etc. He also states that what is beneficial for one group might not necessarily be advantageous for another. Dissoi Logoi considers that rhetoric can be situational. In regards to Gorgias, the persuasive argument is dependent upon what seems logical according to the situation at any given time. Both good and bad are relative to context, point of view, time, or place.
I’ve always thought it was a useful tactic when I taught speech, and had students argue for both sides of an issue in their persuasive speeches. It was interesting to hear them grapple with the intricacies of things like tax codes or voting laws from both sides, and watch them do the research, however painful it sometimes was, on things they didn’t necessarily agree with. And I still think that was a useful exercise.
But Dissoi logoi starts from the premise that both sides can be argued. And that is, quite frankly, not the position we find ourselves in now. And we do ourselves a disservice by pretending anything other than that.
Misinformation is inherently biased and political. And as such the information that combats it will be politicized. No matter how anchored in fact or science or “objective” sources that counterargument is, it will not be perceived as neutral or unbiased. But I think it’s time we re-assess just how much objectivity really is our goal.
Objectivity implies no bias. Objectivity implies that you were not influenced by personal thoughts or feelings when you were making your decision. And yes, that is important. Your opinion shouldn’t be based on your personal desires.
But if your personal desire is that the fewest people possible should die, that’s not a bad thing. If your personal opinion is that science is more believable than random YouTube videos that’s not a bad bias. And that’s the kind of biases we’re dealing with in the world of misinformation today.
But if you are so intent on being objective that you won’t take a stand or make an argument, then misinformation, and injustice, will always win. Because conspiracy and hegemony will take advantage of that so-called neutrality and objectivity every time.
You have to be willing to get political. You have to be willing to make an argument. You have to be willing to take a stand. This is not a time for both sides. One side is wrong. Don’t give it purchase. If you are so intent on objectivity and neutrality that you are willing to let lies run amok you aren’t objective, you are part of a lie.
Now, let me make one thing clear. Am I saying you should just spout off with your own unfounded opinions in response to misinformation? No, absolutely no. If you’re going to make an argument, it should be a logical, reasonable, well-founded one. As I said earlier, I am concerned with good argumentation. But the issue is, no matter how objective your facts or well-grounded your information is, it will be perceived as being biased because misinformation has so politicized the situation. What was once objective is now political. So don’t try to appear objective. When you try to appear objective in a situation like that you feed into the hands of those who argue in bad faith. That is not the time to appear neutral. That is the time to call things what they are and point out bad arguments and bad information, perceptions be damned.
When I was a senior in high school, I had an economics teacher named Mr. Franks. Mr. Franks taught me more in a year about what kind of person I wanted to be than most of the previous years of schooling combined.
One day, a kid in my class, let’s call him Walker, was opining about something – it doesn’t matter what – and Mr. Franks cut him off rather unceremoniously and let him know he wasn’t particularly impressed with Walker’s thoughts. Walker, in true white, middle-class style, said, “Well, this is America. That means you have to respect my opinion.”
And Mr. Franks said, “Well, that’s the biggest bunch of bullshit I’ve ever heard.”
And we all audibly gasped. First, nobody talked to us that way. We were the honors kids. The good kids. The smart kids. Nobody told us we were full of crap. Certainly not a teacher. And NO teacher had ever used that kind of language in front of us before. It was scandalous.
Mr. Franks said, “This is America, which means you have a right to an opinion. I don’t have to respect it. When it is a well-thought out, well-supported, and well-argued opinion, then I’ll respect it. Until then, I don’t have to do anything.”
This was a pivotal moment for me. It was like a firecracker going off in my head. I realized in that moment that my opinions were not inherently good. That I had to work to make them worth people’s time. I probably grew up in that moment more than I did than almost any other time in high school. I also learned at that moment that I don’t HAVE to respect a bad argument. Just because someone is talking doesn’t mean I have to be impressed. They have to work for me just like I have to work for them.
When we are faced with misinformation in the classroom, we do not have to respect it. A bad argument or false information is not worth our energy. We do not, in the name of neutrality or objectivity, have to give ground to bullshit. And we owe it to those who are trying to learn from us to call it out when we hear it.
It is tempting to want to protect the feelings of students who present misinformation, falsehoods, lies, and bad arguments. And sometimes we feel like we need to for the sake of our jobs or those all-powerful teaching evals. But I think of Mr. Franks. Mr. Franks did me an amazing favor that day by teaching me that not all arguments are created equal. And if we aren’t teaching our students that, then what are we teaching them about argumentation?
In order to fight misinformation in the classroom we have to embrace the idea that we must take a position. We must claim that some arguments are superior to others and some information is good and some is bad. We must be willing to be labeled “biased” or “political.” What should be simple, straightforward argumentation has been politicized and there is no way back from that. It is frightening position to be in because we have spent so many years conditioning ourselves to value “objectivity” so that we don’t say, this is “good” or this is “bad” to our students, but that time is well-past. But the truth is, you can totally do that. You have the tools. You KNOW what a good argument is. You know what a good source is. You can make that judgment and support it.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.