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All eyes have been on Missouri this week. In fact, Missouri has been on my mind a lot, certainly since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August of last year. But for the last few weeks, tensions at the state’s flagship University of Missouri have intensified as African American students reported on and protested a series of racist incidents, leading to Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike and eventually a walk-out of some 30 Missouri football players, a move supported by their coach. One result: on November 9, the University’s President and Chancellor both resigned, as the students demanded. Like most of you, I’ve been following these events with growing concern, and I’ve thought a lot about the combination of speaking, writing, and acting/performing that characterized the student protest—a rhetorical situation played out on the national stage.
Flash back for a moment to 1968, to the Black Power movement, to the Mexican Olympics, and to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s raised fists on that Olympic medal platform, raised fists that represented the frustrations of African Americans as well as Black pride. Those readers who were alive at the time will remember the uproar that followed, the media coverage of this event. Those readers may also recall that in the aftermath of that event, Edward P. J. Corbett published “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist” (CCC 20 [December 1969]). He opened this essay with a reference to Zeno, who used the metaphor of the hand in discussing various relationships between knowledge and power. Corbett notes that by the Renaissance, Zeno’s “closed fist” had become associated with the spare, tight, rational discourse of logic, while the “open hand” was linked to the “relaxed, expansive” discourse of rhetoric. In the turbulent 1960s, Corbett suggested, we should perhaps see the open hand as representing the reasoned, sustained discussion of issues and the closed fist as representing discursive activity that “seeks to carry its point by non-rational, non-sequential, often nonverbal, frequently provocative means” associated with the Black Power movement. Corbett went on to acknowledge that such “provocative” activity is sometimes called for, so he does not reject such rhetorical action out of hand. But it’s clear that he hopes for a return to what he calls the “open hand” of rationality.
Well, that essay was published nearly fifty years ago, and today it seems in some important ways shortsighted, especially in terms of the material lives of African Americans and their ongoing demands for equality. But I think Corbett’s essay and the metaphor of its title are worth recalling today, not only because 46 years on we are still plagued by the effects of racial divide, but also because the open hand and closed fist no longer seem a supportable binary, with rationality on one side and non-rational emotionality on the other.
We now know, for instance, that human beings do not make most decisions based on reason and rationality, that emotion plays a crucial role in human action (and that it is distributed throughout the body, brain included). We know that the hegemony of the written word is challenged by the rise of aurality/orality, of the embodied, performed word. And we know that ethical and effective persuasion today calls for recognition of this knowledge and for imaginative combinations of discursive acts.
We have seen such combinations at work on the Mizzou campus: the letters of protest; the signs, T-shirts, and placards; the spoken, chanted, shouted words of student protesters; the embodied argument of Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike; the collective action of football players and coach. Were we to return to the metaphoric binary, we might see President Wolfe as the closed fist, shut down, holding tight, not responding, and the students as engaging more in the “expansive” rhetoric of the open hand. But I really don’t think the binary holds: what we saw on the Missouri campus was a situation that required a combination of moves and strategies as well as an understanding of kairos, a seizing of the opportune moment.
Professor Corbett was right that the grounds of argument and argumentation have shifted. The shift is obvious in the lessons from Missouri as well as in arenas stretching from public debate to academic discourse. At the end of his essay, Corbett quotes from Robert Scott and Wayne Brockriede’s The Rhetoric of Black Power: “Black Power, no matter what shapes it assumes in the next few years, will remain vital as one starting point for the study of the American ethos which is now developing. . . .”
The powerful Black Lives Matter movement—now worldwide—and the events at the University of Missouri remind us that teachers of writing and rhetoric have an obligation to study “the American ethos” and the way that ethos is manifesting itself today, on campuses across the country and on the world’s digital stage. We have an obligation to engage our students in the study of this ethos and these ongoing shifts in argumentation as well as to help them consider how, when, and where they will engage in such ethical argumentation—speaking, writing, acting, performing—in their own lives.
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