A YEAR OF VANLIFE AND THE RHETORIC OF CIVILITY

This is a version of the remarks I delivered to the Rhetoric and Communication Theory Division of the Texas Speech Communication Association Convention this morning:

I was talking to my friend Kaston last night. Kaston lives in Nashville. He’s a songwriter and plays in a band called My Politic. I told him I was “going” to Texas today to talk about civility. He said, “My god, I would be so nervous  giving a speech about something so freshly dead. Like, it’s not even in the ground yet. You better give a hell of a eulogy tomorrow.” 

While I don’t entirely agree with my friend—I think civility is still on life support—I have to say, giving a speech on this topic sorta feels like offering a seminar on seaworthiness to the crew of the Titanic. On the floating end of the ship. In the words of Ta Nehisi Coates, “I’m not here to give you hope.” Okay, I’m going to try to give you a little hope; but, I can’t forget what Cornel West said to me when I posed the question of civility to him a year after the last election, “It’s bleak out there, my brother. It’s bleak.”

It is bleak indeed. I don’t need to bury you in the data. You know. Polarization and outrage are trending. My colleague Josh Compton and I had a piece in Public Relations Quarterly 10 years ago about outrage rhetoric after South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson yelled “you lie” at President Obama, during his address to Congress. Feels kinda quaint now. Probably wouldn’t last a full news cycle these days. The divide is deep and wide, and it’s not just about politics anymore. We used to be able to say, “Let’s quit talking about politics and religion… How ‘bout those Cowboys!” Now it’s, “You mean Jerry Jones’s team, trying to find compromises and giving in to the terrorism of Black Lives Matter and kneeling before games? Screw those socialists!” Nothing is sacred, and everything is sacred. Families, friends, and neighbors are being pulled apart by polarization, fear, and anger.

Like most of you, I saw this divide in our discourse growing in the campaign rhetoric of 2016. I was living in Springfield, Missouri with my wife. Our kids were recently grown and out of the house. We were each in our thirtieth year of teaching. She was preparing to retire from her public school position. I was going to have to hang around a few more years in my faculty position. A funny thing happened on the way to retirement. The election happened. Two days later, after I sobered up and crawled out of my grief hangover (it might be obvious at this point what my political preferences are), I decided something needed to change. Something big needed to happen. The center wasn’t holding, and the status quo seemed broken…business-as-usual just didn’t seem sustainable anymore. 

So, Betsy and I sold our house and cars, quit our jobs, bought a van, and hit the road. What started as an escape became a pursuit. I decided to talk to people about the things that divide us, and try to find a way toward a new kind of discourse. I ended up learning as much about myself as I did about anyone else.

Over that next year, we lived mostly in our van, and we traveled 25,000 miles across 44 states, meeting over 700 regular folks and listening to stories from all kinds of people. As time went by we got a chance to meet a dozen or so more public figures like Jeb Bush, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Kathleen Sebelius, Cornel West, John Kasich, and a few other governors, senators, and religious leaders.

What I’m going to do today is tell you 11 things I learned. But, before I begin, I need to tell you what this project is NOT: 1) It is not an academic study. 2) It is not a monetized media product (website, podcast, film). In the end, we wanted to, very simply, meet people and hear their stories, while removing any obstacles that would prevent honest conversation.

On May 31, 2017, after we had finished the academic year, we left on our journey, and here are 11 of the things I have learned since then:

  1. Living in 95 sq.ft. with two adults and a 70-lb. dog requires good relationship skills. 

If you’re not prepared to poop about 10” from your partner’s head and wear the same four changes of clothes, vanlife may not be for you. Betsy and I had been married for 30 years when we left on our journey with our border collie-lab mix, Maybe. And we really liked each other (and still do!). We had lots of people say it would have been the end of their relationship. Vanlife forces you into a mindfulness that normal homelife does not require. Moving around is like tai chi. We chose the smaller van as opposed to a big RV because we wanted to be more mobile and travel in congested city traffic. Most of our stops were were parking in people’s driveways, or the streets in front of their homes. We call that moochdocking.

2. Be careful what you eat.

We cooked a lot, the van has a nicely equipped, but small, kitchen. But, mostly we were eating with people who hosted us along the road. It was a special occasion for them, but we had to be careful about our waistlines. We also learned to ask more questions about what we were eating. We parked at a house in Houston, where they were cooking and baking in preparation for Thanksgiving. Among the things they were baking were edibles. When we pulled out the next morning, our host gave us a couple of freshly baked “special” cookies. Turns out that’s not enough information! We pulled over at a city park in Bastrop, stoned out of our gourds, watching (weirdly) three hours of All in the Family reruns, before we could get back on the road to Austin, where we were sharing Thanksgiving dinner with friends and a 12-step recovery group.  

3. Most people we met think the country’s more divided than it’s been in 50 years.

It’s hard to take that assessment from a 30-year-old, but we talked to several folks over 60 who consistently said things haven’t been this bad since 1968. Regular folks and some who have lived and worked in politics in DC. Trump-supporting Republicans were less concerned about division. That’s understandable…their team won. Interestingly, the people that seemed most bothered by polarization were older moderate Republicans. 

4. There’s no single cause for our division.

It’s a complex of things: like the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, to the emergence of talk radio and the 24-hour news cycle in the 1990s, to systemic racism, to nostalgia politics and the fear of cultural displacement as the country grows less white and less Christian, lack of media literacy, geography (yes, the urban-rural split is real), poor cognitive dissonance coping skills, and the curated narratives and algorithmic epistemologies of social media, tribalism, and negative partisanship, where we are more motivated by the things we hate than the things we love.

5. People are complicated. A lot of us don’t fit the standard media narratives.

I was regularly surprised, and my presumptions were often challenged. We met an Iraqi-American who was a huge Trump supporter and a cousin of his who thought Trump supporters were suffering from a mental virus. We met an extremely well-read, politically astute black man who has never voted (“that’s y’all’s thing”). An atheist who takes her kids to church. A prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention who whispered to me he would vote for Joe Biden. A liberal lesbian who lives with her wife on a farm in NC, where she keeps guns and is a sergeant in the U.S. Army. I met and became friends with Jeb Bush, someone who does not share most of my political views. The biggest argument I had was with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, with whom I suspected I would agree on most things. We saw Confederate flags in upstate New York and met left-wingers in Jackson, MS. Most politicians we met cussed like sailors. We met one sailor. He didn’t cuss at all.

Sure, lots of people were completely predictable, even becoming caricatures of themselves. Like the white guy in Florida who shook with anger when he said white men were the most oppressed group in America, and the very liberal college professor who confessed to me he fantasizes about the deaths of all evangelicals. 

By adopting a more active posture of listening than I ever had in my life—I’m a former debate coach and son of a Baptist preacher, so listening isn’t deeply encoded in my DNA—I was able to appreciate the complexities and diversity…the full humanity of the citizenry. We Americans are an interesting bunch.

6. The art of communication is in the balance of comfort and critique.

I’ve taught this most of my career, but this project really revealed the truth of it. Finley Peter Dunne said the role of the newspaper was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With apologies to Aristotle, I would suggest the art of rhetoric is discovering in any given circumstance the balance between comfort and criticism. If we comfort too much—focus on cooperation, listening, messages of healing—we can enable victimization and empower unjust structures. If we critique too much—argue, protest, aggressive advocacy—we can dehumanize and promote violence. The art is in the balance and integration of the two.

7. Dialogue is a complicated goal. 

  • Dialogue is countercultural, especially now. Everything about our current culture pushes us to speak, not hear. It can be a remarkably effective tool, to actively listen to people who don’t feel they’re being heard.
  • David Blankenhorn, Founder of Braver Angels, taught me dialogue is a liberal thing. Conservatives aren’t as interested, and liberals like the idea, they just don’t do it.
  • Dialogue is a privilege. It’s absurd to ask historically oppressed groups to sit and listen to the messages of their oppressors, or to ask people to engage in dialogue who are working multiple jobs to make ends meet. 
  • Sometimes dialogue must be preceded by monologue, or corrective acts of justice. 

8. I learned that not everyone is my audience. 

I learned some things from Alvin Warren, who served as the first Sec. for Indian Affairs in New Mexico. After having breakfast with him in a non-native owned restaurant, which he referred to as occupied land, and after spending the day with him in his pueblo that has been occupied by his ancestors for 700 years, I realized I have nothing to say to First Nations people, except “I’m sorry. And how can I help?”

I learned from Jin J. X, the young black man I mentioned earlier who has never voted, that even though I had taught intercultural communication and had read Ibram X. Kendi, I couldn’t understand what his life was like. Not really.

I learned from Laticia, an immigrant who works with undocumented people in the Pacific Northwest, that nearly everyone she knew stayed home and quaked in fear after the election, terrified they would be deported or be victims of violence. 

And I learned from Jack and Matthew in Madison, Wisconsin that I shouldn’t speak too cavalierly about religious freedoms or my marriage until I’d been targeted by homophobic men in pickup trucks and had been disowned by my family for the sin of marrying my husband.

Most people have more to teach me than I have to teach them. Most of what I do have to say is really for people who look like me and move through the world in a similar manner.

9. I learned (or was reminded) that communication theory is useful.

  • That our our divide is described well by Thomas Kuhn’s incommensurable positions, Stephen Toulmin’s limiting questions, and Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance.
  • That our way through is systemic and personal, and since I’m not a policy analyst or political scientist, I should stick with the messages I understand and can control.
  • That by deploying the teaching of Buber’s I-Thou over I-It (what I call ‘thouing,’ not ‘itting’), the dialogical communication in Barnett Pearce’s Coordinated Management of Meaning, Mikail Bakhtin’s glorious language moves of ‘discrowning,’ ‘heteroglossia,’ and ‘unfinalizability,’ we can embrace the tensions in our relational dialectics like Baxter and Montgomery taught us. And not see our differences as obstacles but opportunities.

10. What I saw work best on the road, and what is my current discursive prescription for surviving our current divide is a combination of humility, empathy, and truthfulness.

HUMILITY—We’ll never convince someone else of our truth if we’re not substantively and epistemologically prepared to consider the weaknesses of our own ideas or processes. Humility requires we “sit with” an idea before responding too quickly or aggressively. 

EMPATHY—Few people will listen to you if you’re not really trying to hear and understand them. Old white men in MAGA hats are hard for me to understand, but when I grasp their fear of cultural displacement, I can at least understand the fear and anger that animates them.

TRUTHFULNESS—It’s as important to be honest about our own culpability in the injustices around us as it is to speak truth to power. Truth is more powerful if it’s not just used as a blunt instrument.

11. So, what did I learn about civility? Is it worth it? Does it work? 

In her 2020 DNC speech Michelle Obama addressed the criticisms of her well-known phrase, “when they go low we go high.” She said people ask her now, does going high work anymore.

Her response: “It’s the only thing that works…if we degrade and dehumanize others we just become part of the ugly noise drowning everything else. We degrade ourselves. We degrade the causes for which we fight.” She’s describing an artful rhetoric—balancing comfort and critique—when she says, “Going high doesn’t mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted with visciousness and cruelty. It means taking the harder path and standing fierce against hatred. Going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold, hard truth.” 

And that’s where I think we are. Civility is possible. It has to be. If it’s not, we’re doomed. Civility is posssible. Dialogue is possible. Rhetoric and persuasion are possible. But just barely. And only if we are willing to do the hard work of humility, empathy, and truthfulness.

I used to teach students ethics, proper use of reason and evidence, listening skills, etc. because I knew the public square would demand it from them, and I wanted them to be successful. Now, I teach them these things, not to answer the public square, but to rescue it. We are now training potential heroes.

Leonard Cohen said, “There are cracks in everything and that’s how the light gets in.” This time of division and brokenness has been hard, but there’s opportunity in it. The cracks have shown us who we are. If we’ll take the opportunity to truly see ourselves, to get honest about who we are and what we’re doing, then maybe we start to put things back together. 

They’ll never go back the way they were. It’s like the Japanese art of mending broken pottery called Kintsugi. In Kintsugi, they use a solution of epoxy and gold dust to patch and highlight the broken places. By accepting the blemishes and flaws then patching them, we can make the vessel stronger and maybe more beautiful than before. Healing our broken state of discourse will not be easy…nearly impossible. It is a quixotic journey. It takes passion, and requires patience. In Kintsugi you have to work one piece at a time. If you try to do all the pieces at once, the vessel will fall apart again. You have to set one piece and hold it for an uncomfortable length of time. Then it’s piece by piece. It takes time and patience, but if we keep one eye on the end and one eye on the now, we just might put ourselves back together. 

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