Approaches to Arguing in a Post-Fact World

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Like many of you, I've been thinking a lot lately about how best to work with students in a "post-fact" world. We all understand the problem--students being inundated with misinformation, falsehoods, outright lies, "alternative facts," and, of course, genuine news and factual statements. But how to tell one from another? Recent research by the Pew Foundation and others suggests that, in fact, such acts of careful discrimination between fact and fiction are quite difficult, to say the very least.


In my own work on argument, I have long stressed the crucial importance of listening (many thanks to Krista Ratcliffe’s work) and of fully acknowledging those with whom you are arguing. I stress rhetorical listening—that is, listening from the other person’s point of view, listening with as open a mind as possible, and trying to truly hear what the other person is saying. Today, these abilities seem not simply important but the very sine qua non of conversation that can move forward, rather than stalling in a dead heat of rancor and anger.248384_3-2-17.png


I’ve also been collecting ideas from others, and it's been encouraging to hear so many teachers of writing sharing their strategies and assignments. We are a group grounded in action, not just talk.


As usual, I get a lot of inspiration from postings to the WPA list and often I’m struck by the humorous approach to argument I find there: it’s often a very useful strategy. Recently I read a post from Mark Marino the description of his assignment(s) on writing “fake news,” a term much in the news today. As Mark puts it, he takes a “slightly unorthodox” approach in a three-week course called “How to Write and Read Fake News: Journalism in the Age of Trump”:

As a college composition instructor (at USC), I've been fascinated/infuriated/provoked by both the circulation of fake news (the non-satirical kind) and the weaponization of the term "fake news" by the President largely to delegitimize the professional press as a form of censorship/censorship. This course marks my attempt to respond.


Although the course was satirical in tone and highly performative in delivery, the course had a real reading list, lessons, and assignments. You can find Mark’s syllabus (he calls it a “sillybus”) online. Mark also wrote an explanation of the project at Slingshot.


I especially enjoyed hearing about student response and about the kinds of topics they chose to write “fake news” about, and I enjoyed the light touch, the smile just-barely there. And I was very impressed with the students’ ability to analyze their own “fakes” and Mark’s attempts to move that analytic ability onto other “fakes” on the Web.


So that’s one posting that caught my eye in the last couple of weeks. For another—as Monty Python used to say—“now for something completely different.” I wonder if you have read about or seen Daryl Davis, the African American musician who has made it his practice to meet and befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan and who wrote about it in Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the KKK. I first ran across a mention of Davis on PBS and was thunderstruck at the very idea: as a child born and raised in the deeply segregated south, I had a recurring nightmare about the KKK throughout my childhood and youth. While I never saw anyone in robes or hoods, so powerful and frightening were the images that I woke screaming at the dream of those hoods and torches. Could I, I wonder, meet and talk in a friendly way with a member?


After watching the film on Davis, called Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis and Race in America, perhaps I could—because Davis is the very embodiment of what Krista Ratcliffe calls rhetorical listening. He meets and befriends members of the KKK; he invites them to his home; he sits and listens, saying “I did not respect what he said, but I respects his right to say it.” And sometimes (in fact, to hear him tell it, fairly often) it works: the two very unlike people become friends, and in some cases the KKK member renounces his or her dedication to a “race war.” Here are a couple of tips from Davis, from a posting by Conor Friedersdorf (he’s a conservative editorialist) for The Atlantic, that reverberate strongly with me:


Please do…

“Look for commonalities. You can find something in five minutes—even with your worst enemy. And build on those. Say I don’t like you because you’re white and I’m black. You disgust me. . . . And so our contention is based upon our races. But you’re like ‘how do you feel about all these drugs on the street, and all these meth labs that are popping up?’ And I say, I think the law needs to crack down on things that people can get addicted to very easily and it's destroying our society. So you say, ‘Well yeah, I agree 100 percent.’ You might even tell me your son started dabbling in drugs. They don't discriminate. So now I see that you want what I want, that drugs are affecting your family the same way they affect my family, so now we're in agreement. So let's focus on that. As we focus more and more and find more things in common, things we have in contrast, such as skin color, matter less and less.”

Please don’t:

“. . . become condescending. Don’t become insulting. You’re going to hear things that you don’t like. You’re going to hear things you know are absolutely wrong. . . . You will also hear things that are opinions put out as facts. ‘There are more black people on welfare than white people.’ Well, that’s not true. And you should counter that and correct that. But don't do it in a manner that is insulting or condescending because you know they're wrong, and you're going to beat them over the head for being wrong. Show them the data, or tell them you'll get it, or if they really believe it, say, I know you're wrong, but if you think you're right then bring me the data.”


On the PBS page for Accidental Courtesy, readers are asked “Do you think Daryl's strategy of befriending KKK members to change the way they view people of color is the right approach?" Here are two of many responses:


Timothy Zaal Work Related

It is imperative! As a former racist myself, had I not had the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone/isolated social network, those who I dehumanized through fear & Far Right propaganda, would have remained less than human & worthy of extinction. However, I was shown compassion by my perceived enemy. I would not have successfully disengaged from the far right & lived to tell about it without exposure beyond my social network.
Respect = Change 
T. Zaal


I think Daryl sees the humanity in all people including those with reprehensible racist beliefs. His willingness to engage with the 'other' shows that through dialogue, and mutual respect, people can change. He shows that when we dehumanize those that dehumanize us we are all diminished. In the polarized political climate we live in, this offers a glimmer of hope, because neither retreating to our corners nor lashing out in anger, is an option anymore. While the discussion between Daryl and BLM leaders seems to expose a rift in approaches, differences based in personal life experiences and philosophies, this is nothing new in any civil rights movement; and this was just one 'made for camera' moment that is not a definitive statement on where things stand. I get where the BLM leaders are coming from and I get what Daryl is trying to do. I believe the movement to reform or diminish white supremacy will take a multitude of approaches and requires people of all ethnicities, including white people, to work together- and we make to stop making each other wrong.


The film Accidental Courtesy is widely available online. I can imagine watching either all or part of it with students and then asking them to respond to that same question. Doing so might take us a long way toward getting over the need to “make each other wrong.” Listen. And listen hard. And listen again.


Credit: Pixaby Image 1903774 by pixel2013, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.