Deliberate Conflict: Argument, Political Theory, and Composition Classes

Deliberate Conflict: Argument, Political Theory, and Composition Classes

by Patricia Roberts-Miller

Paperback(1st Edition)


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780809327669
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
Publication date: 09/28/2007
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Patricia Roberts-Miller is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of Texas–Austin. She is the author of Voices in the Wilderness: The Paradox of the Puritan Public Sphere and the editor of the Harcourt Brace Sourcebook for Teachers of Writing.

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Deliberate Conflict

Argument, Political Theory, and Composition Classes
By Patricia Roberts-Miller

Southern Illinois University Press

Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8093-2766-9

Chapter One

Politics Without Argument

Liberalism will always remain an aspiration. It can never be fully realized or institutionalized. But it can provide a guide and stimulus to action. A liberal nation is a nation that keeps the worthier aims of liberalism steadily in view. -Stephen Holmes, Passions and Constraints

The liberal model of the public sphere is not the first or oldest model of democracy (the agonistic model long predates it), but it is the most common in political theory and public discourse. Like current-traditional pedagogy (which is, in many ways, the pedagogical enactment of liberal political theory), it is grounded in Enlightenment values of civility, rationality, neutrality, and autonomy. While current-traditional rhetoric is-if mentioned at all-an object of derision in composition theory, my own observation of classroom practice would suggest that it remains common, if not predominant (as is also suggested in Hillocks's Ways of Teaching). The pedagogical tenacity of current-traditional rhetoric may well be theresult of people's desire not to abandon the goal of a rational, critical, and inclusive form of policy discourse that respects the privacy of individuals.

As will be discussed later, liberalism (both as a political agenda and a theory of democracy) is under attack from many directions. Hannah Arendt begins her critical discussion of Marx with what almost amounts to an apology, saying that she does not want to be understood as joining the people she calls "professional anti-Marxists" (Human Condition 79). I hesitate to criticize liberal political theory because I do not want to be understood as joining in, or even approving of, the attacks on political liberals by the professional antiliberals. I am, ultimately, critical of the liberal public sphere, but even I will grant that many attacks on it are not entirely fair insofar as they rely on attacking liberal political theory for its use of concepts like autonomy, the public-private split, neutrality, rationality, and universality because those terms are used by liberal political theorists in ways significantly more complicated than many criticisms imply-a point to be pursued in the next two chapters. That is not to say that the attacks are entirely wrong, and that liberal political theory is right, but simply that the argument is not over.

The ideal public sphere of Enlightenment theorists is one where intellectually autonomous interlocutors judge one anothers' arguments purely on the basis of how well they are presented, rather than who presents them. A good argument is presented in a rational, decorous, impartial manner, and appeals to universal principles. Defenders of this vision argue that it is inclusive in that it is open to all people-regardless of gender, race, class, and so on-who can make their arguments in such a way. Proponents of this theory do not claim that everyone has equal competence at such a discourse, but that everyone could were they properly educated. Thus, liberal political theory is always entwined with arguments about education. A liberal education is supposed to provide the skills of critical thinking and argumentation (as well as the knowledge base), which open the door to the liberal public sphere. The empirical fact that this sphere has always been populated primarily by white men from the upper and upper middle classes is not taken as indicating that there is something wrong with the standards of discourse, but rather with the preparation of women, minorities, and the lower classes. It is taken as a flaw in liberal education (or in the willingness of some groups of people to become educated), and not as a flaw in the liberal public sphere. Were all people adequately prepared for liberal discourse, then the liberal public sphere would be liberatory and inclusive.

The objection to such a line of argument is familiar to compositionists: that the standards are not themselves impartial, that the public sphere is liberatory and inclusive only to the extent that all participants adopt the ethos of a European white male. The familiarity (and fundamental justice) of that criticism means that we fail to look more at the complexities within Enlightenment theories. My intention in the next two chapters is to articulate those complexities because, as much as composition theorists may try to ostracize it and its brother current-traditional rhetoric, we are still left with the problem liberal political theory was trying to solve: How can we create and maintain a genuinely inclusive discursive realm where people can deliberate as equals?

And we are left with the terms that liberal political theorists used to answer that question. Because of the centrality of liberal political theory, because so many of the models of democracy are responses to it, and because of the ways those terms are interwoven into discussions of public argument, I will spend the next two chapters on liberal political theory. My intention is to define and critique the central concepts in liberal political theory, but in a way that acknowledges the complexities and attractions of the concepts. This chapter focuses on the concepts of the public-private split, universality, neutrality, self-evidence, and rationality. The next chapter discusses autonomy, individuality, objectivity, and the deontological versus traditional-universalist models of liberalism.

One of many problems with talking about political theory is that, as Donald Lazere has said, Americans have an impoverished notion of the political spectrum ("Teaching the Political Conflicts"). In consequence, we imagine that all political views can be laid out on a one-dimensional continuum from extreme left to extreme right (ignoring that political views are rarely one-dimensional). Leftists are at one end, with liberals next to them, moderates in the middle, conservatives to the right of them, and reactionaries at the far right. Laid onto this already problematic schema is a description of political stances (not philosophies): One's tolerance for political correctness (such as hate speech laws) is commonly assumed to be determined by how far to the left one is, as is one's willingness to resort to governmental intervention to engage in social engineering (such as affirmative action). Meanwhile, it is assumed that people are more religious the more to the right they are, more supportive of capitalism, more suspicious of government, and (yet?) more willing for the government to engage in strict enforcement of law and order.

But such a model becomes a hash once one thinks about how people actually behave: the large number of people who oppose the death penalty (thus on the left) for religious reasons (hence, on the right); organizations like the ACLU that are suspicious of big government and hostile to hate speech laws (supposedly a right-wing tendency) yet equally hostile to governmental promotion of religion (a position identified with the left); people who support affirmative action for athletes or children of alumnae but oppose it for underrepresented minorities. The very issue of political correctness exemplifies the muddled political categories of American culture. Generally used to mean attentiveness to language use, such as insisting on the term "people with disabilities" rather than "disabled people," political correctness is supposed to be a vice of those left of center. Yet, it is easy to come up with examples of such delicacy on the part of those who would hardly consider themselves leftist, such as parents who force publishers to remove the word "witch" from popular children's tales, or who object to Mr. Rogers's "land of make believe."

In short, in general parlance, the term "liberal," as a category describing political agenda or policies, is nearly meaningless. Some historians use the term to denote a political tradition with certain specific values: a sense that equal opportunity (rather than strict equality) is and should be a major goal of public policy; a desire to protect the intellectual and moral independence of individuals, and to encourage critical thinking; a belief that protecting such independence means ensuring that the government permit public expression of unpopular beliefs and private enacting of unpopular practices; and an assumption that the solutions to the most pressing problems are not likely to be radical reshapings of existing constitutional and institutional arrangements, but new ways of operating within them (adapted from Diggins's Rise and Fall of the American Left). Once defined this way, the term is more meaningful, in that it defines a set of premises many people and groups (such as the ACLU) do follow. When referring to this political agenda, or set of policy desiderata, I will use the term "liberal political agenda."

The liberal political agenda is not, however, what political theorists (or I) mean by "liberal political theory" or the "liberal tradition." The relation between the liberal political agenda and liberal political theory, as David Held has said, is historically complicated and very nearly random. I want to emphasize this point, as it is easy for my general argument to be misunderstood, and for people who identify themselves as advocates of the liberal political agenda to feel that my (and political theorists') criticisms of liberal political theory are misrepresentations of their political beliefs. My point is that they are not misrepresentations because they are not even attempts at representation: the liberal political agenda and liberal political theory are only grammatically related. And, in fact, advocates of the liberal political agenda do not necessarily offer good examples of liberal political theory. Thus, were one to look for a journal or magazine that best represented the liberal political agenda, one might look to the Nation or Mother Jones, but, were one to look for one that represented liberal political theory, the Economist or even the National Review (both politically conservative) would be better examples. This is not to say that liberal political theory is necessarily conservative but simply that it does not necessarily enact the liberal political agenda. When it comes to applying liberal political theory principles in education, for instance, one can find political liberals like Maxine Hairston, E. D. Hirsch, and Stephen Fishman, as well as political conservatives like Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, and William Rice.

Most writers in political science and theory use the term "liberal" in something closer to the British sense, one that is as easily associated with a conservative position as with a leftist one. This sense of the term is exemplified in Stephen Holmes's definition of liberalism's "core practices":

religious toleration, freedom of discussion, restrictions on police behavior, free elections, constitutional government based on a separation of powers, publicly inspectable state budgets to inhibit corruption, and economic policy committed to sustained growth on the basis of private ownership and freedom of contract. (Anatomy 3-4)

The models of public discourse discussed in this book are all friendly amendments to liberal political theory or extensions of some part of it. Thus, with the possible exception of the assumed connection between "freedom of contract" and democracy, these core practices are shared with all the models discussed in this book.

As Stanley Weintraub and Krishan Kumar have said, the liberal model is "dominant in most 'public policy' analysis and in a great deal of everyday legal and political debate" (7). Its prevalence in popular culture is obvious in political movements like those for English Only, a movement that asserts a necessary connection between violent separatist movements and the failure of some groups to assimilate fully, but also in groups like the ACLU or People for the American Way that insist on personal autonomy. Politically conservative attacks on recent movements in academia often appeal to liberal theory principles. Roger Kimball, for example, lists the tenets of his credo: "the notions that reality is not an invention and that the human mind is capable of apprehending truths that exist apart from the perturbations of subjective fancy" (58) [what might be called rationality]; "that the aspiration of the humanities [is] to speak to the concerns of all men and women" (56) [the assumption of human universality]; "the traditional ideal of disinterested intellectual inquiry" (15) [impartiality]; and the assumption that a liberal education should focus on the canon, "the best that has been thought and written" (56) [universality]. Appeals to liberal political theory principles are certainly common in composition studies. When, for instance, Maxine Hairston bemoans the politicization of the classroom, or Stephen Fishman and Lucille McCarthy assert that the best stance for the instructor is to remain neutral on the topics students are discussing, or textbooks insist upon a stark division between personal narrative and policy argument, they invoke central assumptions of the liberal public sphere.

Initially, the liberal model was almost notorious for making critical discourse so important, and established orders found themselves threatened by its emphases on equality, individuality, and popular education. There are substantial differences among the theorists. Michael Sandel distinguishes deontological (exemplified by Rawls) from procedural (exemplified in various Supreme Court decisions); Bruce Ackerman distinguishes contractarian (e.g., John Locke, Rawls) from utilitarian (e.g., John Stuart Mill); David Held has eight different types of liberal political theory. I distinguish deontological (e.g., Rawls) from what I call traditional-universalist (exemplified in the above quotes from Kimball) because that is the distinction with the greatest differences in pedagogy. What is shared among all these versions is that they are, in Chantal Mouffe's (not entirely critical) terms, rationalist, universalist, and individualist ("For an Agonistic" 2). They are also utopian.

The liberal model is utopian in that advocates do not claim it has, or even can be, achieved, but that does not make it inconsequential. Stephen Holmes, one of the most eloquent current defenders of liberalism, ends his chapter "The Liberal Idea":

Liberalism will always remain an aspiration. It can never be fully realized or institutionalized. But it can provide a guide and stimulus to action. A liberal nation is a nation that keeps the worthier aims of liberalism steadily in view. (Passions and Constraints 41)

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas insists that the rational-critical sphere of the philosophes was still had important consequences. Like Holmes, he points out that it functioned as a norm against which actual practice could be compared. There is a strong case to be made that this does happen. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a perfect example, with its emphasis on autonomy, rationality, and universality. Kofi Annan has described the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a "yardstick by which we measure human progress" (qtd. in Ignatieff), and Brian Urquhart has pointed to the connection between that declaration and highly effective groups like Amnesty International and the Helsinki Rights Watch. Urquhart concludes, "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights initiated an immensely important revolution in human affairs" (34). Utopian, rationalist, individualist, and universalist, it has had real consequences.


Excerpted from Deliberate Conflict by Patricia Roberts-Miller Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Politics Without Argument....................18
2. Autonomous Selves, Liberally Educated....................58
3. Closing My Eyes as You Speak....................98
4. What Angels of Our Nature? Communitarianism, Social Constructivism, and Communities of Discourse....................142
5. Listening for Difference....................182
Works Cited....................241

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