The proliferation of stases and the loss of complexity

The outcry over the Cordoba House project is an appalling example of the depths to which US public deliberations can sink, yet it is hardly surprising given the history of US public debate.

As with all public policy issues discussed on this blog, I am interested in the rhetoric used to debate those issues rather than the issues themselves (though in the interests of full disclosure I have no objection whatsoever to a Islamic cultural center in downtown Manhattan). When I describe the debate as “appalling” I don’t mean that certain positions in the debate are appalling (though they may be) but that the state of the debate itself is profoundly dysfunctional.

A large part of that dysfunction in the case of Cordoba House is the ease with which stasis is disrupted (or, more properly, the near impossibility in the debate of reaching stasis among diverse speakers).

Stasis theory refers to the classical rhetorical approach of placing the issues under debate into different categories of questions in order to get all participants in a debate onto the same page. In recent classes I’ve used Sharon Crowley and Michael Stancliff’s categories of conjecture, definition, value, and policy as described in their textbook Critical Situations.

Ideally, if two or more people are going to find resolution to their disagreement, they first have to come to an agreement over the question(s) they are debating. Crowley and Stancliff give the example of abortion debates in the U.S. as chronically failing to achieve stasis (with one faction debating the question of when life begins while the other debates the question of one’s right to choose medical treatments).

Blogger mikeyhemlok over at the progressive Firedoglake site picks up on the issue of defining the question in the Cordoba House case, which is a lot more rhetorically conscious than many others, though ultimately he emphasizes a binary choice: support Cordoba House (and thus American democratic tolerance) or oppose it (and help destroy said tolerance).

Black-and-white choices are often useful, necessary and even ethical in certain rhetorical situations, and mikeyhemlok’s context as a political blogger could serve as one of those situations. For example, defending fundamental values such as tolerance from attack may be an acceptable context in which to avoid complexity in favor of starker choices. However, if we are interested in a rhetorical situation in which multiple viewpoints can be explored, in which reasons can be weighed and discussed, then oversimplification needs to be avoided.

In one sense, it seems that healthy deliberation should welcome a wide range of questions on any issue. A robust debate should include multiple stases. In this case people could ask: How is Cordoba House defined (what is its function)? What value do we attach to the area surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks on Manhattan? How ought Islam be defined? How ought religiously-motivated terrorism be defined? What policies should we enact to control the creation of controversial buildings? Who gets a voice in those policy decisions? What policy is the best response to the Sept. 11 attacks in terms of condemning the violence without sacrificing our pluralistic democratic values? Are pluralism and democracy relevant values in this case? The list could continue for some time.

However, in another sense, the proliferation of stases can undermine healthy debate. Differing questions hold differing levels of persuasive effect for differing audiences, and some of those effects are highly disruptive, such as conflating a complex identity such as “Islam” with a violent faction of that identity (as Sam Harris does with the argument that Islam’s theology somehow makes it uniquely more violent than Christian or Judaic theologies). This conflation energizes both supporters and opponents of Cordoba House, but that energy takes the form of greater hostility toward opposing views, not greater interest in dialogue and exploration of nuance.

The public square is not a courtroom. There are no judges to keep participants in debate on track (though even in courtrooms attaining stasis is hardly guaranteed). So, what can be done to encourage authentic deliberation in which people exchange and consider differing viewpoints in sufficient complexity? Not all facets of public rhetoric need to conform to this standard of authentic deliberation, but, given scarcity of such deliberation in the US today, a little more reasonable debate is sorely needed.

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About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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