The Open Hand: Arguing as an Art of Peace

The Open Hand: Arguing as an Art of Peace

by Barry M. Kroll


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874219265
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 11/15/2013
Edition description: 1
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Barry M. Kroll is the Robert D. Rodale Professor in Writing at Lehigh University. Specializing in the field of composition-rhetoric, he teaches courses on argument and nonfiction writing and also popular literature and film.

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Arguing as an Art of Peace


Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87421-926-5



What is the sound of one hand? Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1768)

"Let's begin," I'd say, and all of us would clap our hands three times, in unison, twice softly followed by a louder third clap. In my course Arguing as an Art of Peace, I opened class sessions by "clapping in" with students, a ritual that signaled the beginning of our work for the day. I introduced this practice on the first day of the semester, evoking a few looks of confusion and concern. Arguing as an Art of Peace fulfilled the first-year seminar requirement in the College of Arts and Sciences, so the students were all freshmen, taking one of their first college courses, and clapping in wasn't quite what they were expecting. But I had their attention and seized the opportunity to introduce some features of the course.

Quite a few things about this course would, I said, be different from most of their other college classes. I explained that I had learned about the clapping-in ritual from my exposure to Japanese martial arts, where sessions often begin with two or three claps. The practice probably has roots in Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, in which clapping the hands at a shrine alerts the deities to one's presence. The gesture also awakens the clapper to the present moment. In our case, clapping would serve as a call to attention and an announcement that our work was about to begin (no invoking of deities, for better or worse). It was an unusual ritual for my students, drawn from an unfamiliar context, and the fact that we were clapping to start each class suggested, I hoped, my interest in new and different approaches. It also indicated the degree to which I would be drawing on Asian arts, ideas, and practices to defamiliarize our work on arguing and provide fresh perspectives from a non-Western tradition. The martial connection was suggestive too because we would be learning some movement sequences drawn from Chinese and Japanese martial arts, focusing on arts of the "open hand." And the notion that a clap provides a wake-up call resonated with the emphasis on mindful awareness that would permeate the course. When they clapped in that first day, students were performing a ritual that anticipated many aspects of their seminar, Arguing as an Art of Peace.

First-year seminars at Lehigh are small classes, usually offered in the fall semester when students are making the transition from high school to college. Each seminar focuses on a topic of inquiry in the arts and sciences and, in most cases, includes intensive writing. The project for students in my seminar was to explore how arguing could be conducted with an open hand, as an art of peace. I used the images of an open hand and closed fist to represent, metonymically, different approaches to the arguments that occur when people disagree with one another. In this course, I explained, we would be exploring the kinds of intense disagreements that arise when people have differing views, values, or goals, and when they have a stake in how those differences get resolved. Hence, our focus would be on argumentative conflict, situations in which one could form a combative fist or offer an open palm.


The semiotics of fist and palm are complex and multivalent: a closed fist can be used to defend oneself or to protect good causes in peril, whereas an open palm can signal resignation or suggest appeasement. Because our work in Arguing as an Art of Peace would focus on the open hand, it was important to explore that symbol's function as a signifier of peaceful intentions ... but not a sign of passive submission. Figured against the fist of power and victory, the open hand can all too readily be construed as weak or acquiescent. I wanted to present another option, based on a different conception of the open hand.

I encouraged students, therefore, to think about an open hand not simply as a gesture of peaceful intent but also as an instrument of contact, a way to connect with an opposing force and, ultimately, control it. In a conflict, this open hand provides a way to establish a connection with an adversary in order to receive aggressive energy and redirect it. This hand is neither belligerent nor passive, neither confrontational nor submissive, yet it has within its reach elements of both assertiveness and receptivity. The hand that connects and controls lies at the heart of a number of Asian martial arts; the one I know best is the Japanese art of aikido. In aikido, one responds to an opposing force by blending, repositioning, redirecting, or spinning around it—all the while staying in contact, using an open hand. While there are no kicks, punches, or hard blocks in aikido, its movements involve, nonetheless, a certain amount of forcefulness combined with yielding or acquiescence, creating a dynamic response to an unfolding encounter. The goal is to resolve conflicts nonviolently, protecting everyone (even one's opponent) from harm. That is why aikido is called an art of peace, a phrase I have appropriated and applied to a mode of argument based on similar goals and tactics.


Over the course of six semesters, from 2007 through 2012, I taught a version of my first-year seminar on the topic of arguing as an art of peace. Although I will regularly refer to the course in what follows, that course is in fact a composite of six seminars. While the class was substantially the same in terms of structure and projects, the activities changed to some extent each time I taught it. In a sense, the course is a fictional construct, yet it is, nevertheless, an accurate and responsible representation of what Arguing as an Art of Peace became as it developed over several years.

I decided to write about the experience of teaching the course because I believe that my curriculum, class activities, and pedagogical approach are sufficiently different from traditional ways of teaching argument to merit consideration. The course I will be presenting differs from most others I've encountered in the following respects:

• It includes rhetorical tactics and modes of arguing that differ from traditional approaches, offering alternatives to the familiar thesis-support patterns of arguing that many college students know from prior experience.

• It encourages students to analyze interpersonal conflicts along with arguments about controversial public issues, grounding the study of rhetoric in the experiences of real people in real conflicts in the situations they encounter in their lives.

• It emphasizes Asian practices and modes of analysis that expand the usual Western approach to composition pedagogy.

• It employs a kinesthetic modality of learning, encouraging students to explore the art of arguing by practicing martial movements.

• It incorporates contemplative practices and meditative arts as ways to cultivate awareness and equanimity in the midst of conflict.

This account is based on my classroom experience, primarily, so the focus is on projects, activities, assignments, informal responses, and final papers—a focus that will appeal, I hope, to college teachers, especially those who have an experimental attitude and are willing, perhaps even eager, to try something different. Although I touch on some theoretical issues and refer to the work of scholars who have influenced my thinking, I have avoided a comprehensive review of the literature as well as extensive citations, believing that they would detract from my purpose. That goal is to present readers with enough details about my course, Arguing as an Art of Peace, to pique their interest and expand their options for teaching argumentation to college students.


When I reflect on the origins of my interest in an open-hand approach to arguing, I go back to the 1970s, when I was a new doctoral student at the University of Michigan. I recall that when I arrived in Ann Arbor in 1973, students in my graduate program were talking about a book, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change, which had been published a few years before, in 1970, by three Michigan professors: Richard Young, Alton Becker, and Kenneth Pike. I read their work with interest and excitement, particularly the chapter on Rogerian argument, in which the authors posit the need for a "new rhetoric." The vision for the Rogerian project was to "develop a rhetoric that has as its goal not skillful verbal coercion but discussion and exchange of ideas" (Young, Becker, and Pike 1970, 8). Young, Becker, and Pike claimed that the times (the late 1960s and early 1970s) required a new approach to argument: "Perhaps never before in our history," they say, "has there been such a need for effective communication, but the old formulations of rhetoric seem inadequate to the times" (8–9). This call for a new rhetoric resonated with my observations and experiences: American society was indeed divided, with a great deal of intense argumentation but little hope, it seemed, of bridging those divisions or fostering cooperation. But nearly four decades later, has the situation changed appreciably? Deborah Tannen's analysis of contemporary conditions suggests that it has not.

In The Argument Culture, Tannen describes the prevalence of a "pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight," portraying a culture in which people approach issues with "an adversarial frame of mind" (Tannen 1998, 3). This approach assumes that "opposition is the best way to get anything done":

The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as "both sides"; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you're really thinking is to criticize. (Tannen 1998, 3–4)

Although Tannen calls attention to the excesses of the argument culture, she refrains from rejecting tactics of the closed fist completely. As she recognizes, assertive approaches are sometimes warranted: "There are times when we need to disagree, criticize, oppose, and attack—to hold debates and view issues as polarized battles" (Tannen 1998, 26). The problem, in Tannen's view, is "the ubiquity, the knee-jerk nature, of approaching almost any issue, problem, or public person in an adversarial way." "What I question," she says, "is using opposition to accomplish every goal, even those that do not require fighting" (8).

My project, like Tannen's, is an attempt to moderate, not invalidate, the emphasis on tactics of arguing with a closed fist; whereas she points to the excesses of adversarial argument, I want to focus on some promising alternatives to it: tactics of reframing, attentive listening, and mediating. My approach—like that of Young, Becker, and Pike—assumes that a writer can enter a dispute with intentions that differ from those that prevail in an argument culture, where goals are usually conceived in terms of winning and losing, defending and defeating, supporting and critiquing, and so forth. Instead, I want to explore what it means to argue for common concerns, shared values, mutual benefits, respectful listening, and joint problem solving. My project is not about rejecting the closed fist but rather about recognizing the possibilities of the open hand that connects and controls.

When I first began to experiment with courses that emphasized alternative modes of arguing, starting in the late 1990s, I structured my syllabi around three projects, each representing a way to expand traditional argument: I called them the deliberative, conciliatory, and integrative approaches. These three approaches continued to play a key role as I developed the writing projects for Arguing as an Art of Peace. Thus, the first project in the course—the subject for chapter 2—involves making a deliberative argument. The concept of deliberative argumentation is as venerable as Aristotle's Rhetoric and as current as contemporary writing courses, often appearing in the guise of proposal arguments or problem-solution essays. Although my approach has some distinctive elements, it is nonetheless consistent with certain aspects of both conventional and more experimental conceptions of deliberation, with links to work on the rhetoric of inquiry as well as the rhetoric of cooperation. Thus my approach is broadly compatible with a conception of deliberative argument as a process of inquiry or a rhetoric of reason, a search for the best answers to pressing questions. In The Shape of Reason, one of the most thoughtful textbooks in this tradition, John Gage says that in the "context of argumentative writing in college," the word argument "does not mean a verbal battle between opponents, each of whom desires to silence the other. It means, instead, the search for reasons that will bring about cooperation among people who differ in how they view ideas but who nevertheless need to discover grounds for agreement" (Gage 2006, 43). In Gage's view, as in my conception of deliberative rhetoric, argumentative writing "may be seen as a process of reasonable inquiry into the best grounds for agreement between a writer and an audience who have a mutual concern to answer a question" (43; italics in original). In the unit on deliberative argument, students in Arguing as an Art of Peace would learn how to reframe disputes so that the focus was on problems or questions that drew writers and readers away from contentious argumentation and into mutual inquiry, a search for what Gage calls "grounds for agreement."

In his more theoretical account of a rhetoric of reason, James Crosswhite describes argumentation as "the practice of a very tenuous hope that people can settle their conflicts nonviolently, that they can act differently from the way they otherwise would because they can open themselves to the dialogues that arguments are" (Crosswhite 1996, 47). While I share this hope, I worry that Crosswhite defines deliberative argument too narrowly, so that it becomes an idealized form of argumentative rationality. In his view, argument is not simply conflictual disagreement but rather a process in which interlocutors are already willing to be part of a cooperative rational discussion, one designed to resolve the disagreement through a series of claims, challenges, and supporting reasons. Crosswhite says that argumentation requires "a respect for one's interlocutor, a modesty or willingness to change on the part of the initiator of the argument, and the renunciation of violence by all parties." If these conditions do not obtain, "it could be argued that argumentation does not take place" (174). Crosswhite believes that unless argumentation is separated from the everyday understanding of "having an argument," which is usually understood as "something like having a fight" (43), there's a chance that students will view "'rational' argumentation or 'scholarly' argument as continuous with the attempts at discursive domination that are so familiar in everyday life" (43). While I understand this concern, my strategy has been to focus on the continuities between everyday disputes and argumentation about social issues; rather than urging students to avoid deeply conflictual arguments, I have tried to teach them how to respond to high-intensity conflicts in ways that maximize opportunities for communication and cooperation.

At the same time my project shares certain features with a rhetoric of inquiry, it also aligns itself with more experimental work on deliberative argument, such as the innovative conception developed in Dennis Lynch, Diana George, and Marilyn Cooper's article "Moments of Argument: Agonistic Inquiry and Confrontational Cooperation." Not only do I share their concern that students have learned "to argue vigorously and even angrily, but not think about alternatives, or listen to each other, or determine how their position may affect others" (Lynch, George, and Cooper 1997, 61), but I also embrace their goal of teaching argument in a way "that prepares students to participate in serious deliberations on issues that face all of us everyday" (62; italics added). As my discussion of the complexities of the open hand—marked by the dynamic interplay of yin and yang, as I explain later—suggests, I am, like Lynch, George, and Cooper, working out a way of "reconceiving argument that includes both confrontational and cooperative perspectives, a multifaceted process that includes moments of conflict and agonistic positioning as well as moments of understanding and communication" (63). At the same time, I am particularly interested in cooperative perspectives on argument because of my focus on disputes and intensive conflicts. For that reason, my work stretches in the direction of the approach that Josina Makau and Debian Marty develop in Cooperative Argumentation, in which they aim to teach students "not to avoid disagreement, but rather to develop tools for confronting disagreement peacefully, ethically, and effectively" (Makau and Marty 2001, 8). For Makau and Marty, "Cooperative argumentative practice" involves a "process of reasoned interaction intended to help participants and audiences make the best assessments or the best decisions in any given situation" (87). I draw on a number of Makau and Marty's ideas in the chapters that follow.

Excerpted from THE OPEN HAND by BARRY M. KROLL. Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of Utah State University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

1 Clapping In 1

2 Reframing and Deliberative Argument 30

3 Attentive Listening and Conciliatory Argument 60

4 Mediating and Integrative Argument 89

5 Bowing Out 114

Appendix 1 Photographic Illustrations of Movement Sequences 139

Appendix 2 Three Student Papers 149

Inferences 164

About the Author 169

Index 171

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