Remedial reading, and (noting the season), a regifting of the same: Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for Invitational Rhetoric.

A week or so ago, had the pleasure to be interviewed as part of a survey conducted by Ioanna Cionea, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. At the session’s end, when I discovered that professor Cionea did research on rhetoric (among many other topics), it was natural to ask if she could recommend some remedial reading.

She was kind enough to oblige. One piece on her list was Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for Invitational Rhetoric, a 1995 essay by Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin. What a treasure! Still a few days until Christmas, good gifts could still roll in; but Beyond Persuasion will likely prove to be one of the best of the gifts under my tree this year. Access to the pdf link is nonrivalrous; hence it’s painless (as well as seasonally appropriate) to regift it to all of you.

Perhaps you’re already familiar with this work; good for you! But if it’s new, you’ll find it timely, for two reasons.

First, the government of the United States is undergoing a sea change in the executive branch – one that’s bringing back a positive White House stance on climate change, dating back to George Herbert Walker Bush and the Rio Summit of 1992, but has been absent for a while. Within a few weeks, we’re likely to be back on board with the rest of the world as signatories to the 2016 Paris agreement. We’ll have John Kerry serving as President Biden’s special climate envoy, Gina McCarty as a climate czar, and Jennifer Grantholm as Energy Secretary. That kind of leadership should see agencies such as EPA and NOAA  prosper.  More significantly, it will allow the United States to recover lost ground on the savings and the international market opportunities opening up as the world shifts to cheaper, cleaner renewable energy sources. But U.S. progress will deepen and accelerate to the extent that the current polarized, heated climate change dialog cools a bit. And in this respect, the essay’s title sounds, well… inviting.

Second, the nation and the world are currently experiencing a season of lament. We’re confronting, once again, but with particular force, the reality that our (two-million-year) human history has been one of brokenness and dysfunction, ever bordering on and too often entering deep into the realm of evil. All too frequently and habitually – and systemically – humans have been quick to distrust and dislike people who are different, by whatever measure – gender, skin color, ethnicity, income level, and more. We’ve acted on these base instincts. We’ve treated “the other” inequitably, unfairly. We’ve excluded them, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes deliberately, across the spectrum of human activity and down through the years. We haven’t let “them” belong. We’ve treated what we “have” as zero-sum, and out of fear and selfishness denied “others” access to the benefits and opportunities of what we consider “ours.”

We’re daily confronting the downside of all this. In a spurt of global reflection and self-examination, resolution, and commitment to action, we’re trying to unwind this two million years of brokenness – all in a single generation. The label applied to this work is DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), with sometimes the additional BA (belonging and accessibility) thrown in. It’s arguably (there’s that emotion-labeled word) the most important work of the human race right now. As it happens, Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin have developed the concept of invitational rhetoric from a feminist perspective, using language and framing that feels particularly fresh and relevant today.

(Okay, Bill, enough dancing around the subject. Just what is invitational rhetoric, and why should I care?)

Glad you asked. The authors summarize it very nicely in their opening:

“Most traditional rhetorical theories reflect a patriarchal bias in the positive value they accord to changing and thus dominating others. In this essay, an alternative rhetoric – invitational rhetoric – is proposed, one grounded in the feminist principles of equality, immanent value, and self-determination. Its purpose is to offer an invitation to understanding, and its communicative modes are the offering of perspectives and the creation of the external conditions of safety, value, and freedom.

They note early on that “Rhetorical scholars ‘have taken as given that it is a proper and even necessary human function to attempt to change others.’” They go on to say “Embedded in efforts to change others is a desire for control and domination, for the act of changing another establishes the power of that change agent over that other… The act of changing others not only establishes the power of the rhetor over others but also devalues the lives and perspectives of those others… This is the rhetoric of patriarchy, reflecting its values of change, competition, and domination… Although definitions of feminism vary, feminists generally are united by a set of basic principles. We have chosen to focus on three of these principles – equality, immanent value, and self-determination – to serve as the starting place for a new rhetoric. These principles are ones that explicitly challenge the positive value the patriarchy accords to changing and thus dominating others.”

Whew! A lot to absorb… particularly for those of us in the crowd who’ve enjoyed the privileges of patriarchs. Might at first blush seem easier, more natural to push back than take this message to heart. But please make the effort to do the latter. Please also read this from the lens of climate science – we’re attempting to warn and change people’s minds about truly existential matters, but it’s not coming across that way. Instead, many people see an effort by elitist, comfortably well-off scientists to put long-term, abstract, ephemeral issues ahead of more immediate, more universal concerns: jobs, health care, education, racial divides, unsafe streets at home and terrorist threats abroad. These challenges have long been chronic and pervasive; the pandemic has brought them all to a crisis point. But the hearers can be forgiven for seeing the messages as patriarchal efforts at domination. We need to take a new tack, and frankly have little to lose in any such attempt.

There’s eighteen pages of expansion on these ideas and illustrative examples. Rather than go into more depth, I’ll adhere to the spirit of the paper and invite you to read it.

As mentioned earlier, the paper has been around awhile; a benefit is that elapsed time has allowed critiques of the approach to surface. A developing Wikipedia article on the subject provides a summary and can point you to more material.

Happy holidays!

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