Deliberative Rhetoric Is a Necessary Tool for Communal Flourishing
To promote true abundance, educators from a variety of disciplines must instill the basics of rational debate and consensus-building
I’ve previously argued that rhetoric and abundance go hand in hand; people skilled in rhetoric can talk their way into opportunities those unskilled in rhetoric may not. However, this take on rhetoric and abundance is decidedly personal; it helps us navigate and negotiate our way through society as individuals. But rhetoric and abundance also correlate for communal flourishing. How do groups of people get what they want on the communal or societal level?
Abundance—the ability to acquire as many societal benefits as possible for the utmost flourishing—depends on rhetoric because people have different ideas about what constitutes a societal benefit and what is the best way to get it. To choose among these competing beliefs in the marketplace of ideas, a specific branch of rhetoric is needed: deliberation. As a professor of rhetoric and a firm believer in civil society, I think general education, both secondary and postsecondary, should better emphasize deliberative rhetoric. It is the lifeblood of a free and civil democracy and a formidable skill for communal abundance, be that community one’s workplace, church, neighborhood or nation. Ultimately, institutions that claim to ready their students to successfully navigate and improve the world ought to emphasize deliberative skills throughout their curricula.
What Is Deliberative Rhetoric?
Deliberation is a branch of rhetoric aligned with politics and civic engagement. Aristotle writes that the “deliberative orator’s aim is utility: deliberation seeks to determine not ends but the means to ends, i.e., what it is most useful to do.” The goal of deliberation, then, is to argue for what is advantageous or disadvantageous for a community’s or society’s future. Whether deliberating for tomorrow, next week or next year, deliberative rhetors aim to persuade people to do what they think is beneficial for all and dissuade them from what they think is detrimental for all.
Deliberation is especially important in a civil, pluralistic and free democracy, where “the people” ultimately in charge of the public good have widely different ideas about what that good should be. Therefore, “deliberative democracy” is the ideal system. Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, political scientists and leading thinkers on the topic, define deliberative democracy as “a form of government in which free and equal citizens (and their representatives) justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable and generally accessible, with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding in the present on all citizens but open to challenge in the future.”
This kind of communication takes place in most civic, professional, educational and political contexts. From school board meetings to city council sessions to the floor of the U.S. Congress, deliberation is used to provide sound reasons for the efficacy of a policy and accept sound refutation from others until the deliberators reach a conclusion that is most advantageous to a community or society at large.
So, what does this have to do with abundance? If people have an idea that will provide the utmost abundance for themselves and others, they can better ensure its implementation if they are skilled in deliberative rhetoric. They can state their case to the local, state or even federal government. Theoretically, citizens with adequate skill in deliberation are more likely to acquire what they want than people who lack this skill.
Lest you think I make this argument out of disciplinary bias (I am a rhetorician, after all), I believe that deliberative rhetoric can open doors to abundance in several walks of life. Being knowledgeable is important, but if you cannot share that knowledge effectively to persuade or collaborate, what good is it? Having a business plan adopted, persuading behavioral scientists of the potential for a new form of therapy, or convincing college administrators of the benefits or detriments of an educational policy all necessitate rhetorical savvy and the ability to deliberate. What’s more, what good are ideas about social justice, civic engagement or local politics if those ideas cannot be explained to a particular audience with reason, rationality and sufficient proof? To bridge this gap between having a good idea and implementing that idea, deliberation should be a focal point of general education.
Deliberative Rhetoric and Education
So why is deliberation not a primary or sufficiently emphasized outcome of education at all levels?
You may assume that academic fields like rhetoric and communication are the best places to hone deliberative skills, but you’d be unpleasantly surprised. The prevailing social justice pedagogy in higher education—informed by critical social justice—has tenets antithetical to deliberation. For one, deliberation cannot exist in a world where words are perceived as equivalent to violence. Scrutiny—a necessary aspect of deliberation—would be considered an attack.
What’s more, entering into deliberative communication having already settled the dynamics of the particular context—racism is always already at play when oppressors (i.e., white people) and oppressed share the same space—renders the debate meaningless. Deliberation from the former is always seen as an attempt to hold down the latter. In fact, according to the now infamous infographic titled “Some Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States,” the decision-making, democratic values and desire to take action to address a problem that constitute the act of deliberation would be seen as “competition” and therefore a white way of knowing. Unfortunately, many academics who call themselves anti-racists abide by this ideology. Rhetoric is not only unexempt from this phenomenon; it is arguably one of the fields most inundated by it.
For my social-justice-oriented colleagues and like-minded others, deliberation and the constitutional laws that allow it cause harm and are, therefore, dangerous. But, as criminal justice professor Nathan Goetting writes, “It’s from intellectual danger zones that bold, creative and transformative ideas emerge.” He continues:
The purpose of college is to advance knowledge, and to achieve this bracing goal, every classroom and professor’s office should be such a danger zone—where any idea is open to adversarial questioning and other forms of truth-testing. This should be true of all academic disciplines but especially those in the humanities and social sciences, where debatable values, not technical skills, are discussed. In these spaces, no claim or question honestly offered in the spirit of inquiry should be off-limits.
Rhetorical education with an emphasis on deliberation would be better off outsourced to other fields. As Goetting writes, all academic disciplines should embrace deliberation. Indeed, deliberation is an ideal outcome for general education; it is a skill that both enhances and is enhanced by common learning outcomes.
A Framework for Deliberation
The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” developed by several groups of professional writers and teachers, shows how other academic disciplines can instill the principles of deliberative rhetoric. Although the text of the “Framework” focuses on writing specifically, it also discusses rhetorical knowledge in general, which the authors define as “the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purpose, and contexts.” What’s more, writing may be the best way to instill qualities of good deliberative rhetoric.
This “Framework,” co-written by secondary and postsecondary educators, identifies the habits of mind “central to success in college and beyond.” They are defined as “ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical and that will support students’ success in a variety of fields and disciplines.” Here are the “Framework’s” eight habits of mind crucial for success in 21st-century free and civil society.
Curiosity — the desire to know more about the world.
Openness — the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.
Engagement — a sense of investment and involvement in learning.
Creativity — the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating and representing ideas.
Persistence — the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.
Responsibility — the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.
Flexibility — the ability to adapt to situations, expectations or demands.
Metacognition — the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.
These habits of mind are imperative for deliberative skill, but, correlatively, honing deliberative skill can strengthen one’s ability to hone and utilize these habits of mind. Creativity, persistence, responsibility and flexibility can help us handle scrutiny and understand other viewpoints without feeling harmed. Curiosity, openness and engagement speak to the importance of listening and allowing crucial feedback through the deliberation process. What’s more, those listening in have the right to hear every side of an argument clearly; no side should be shut down or shortchanged. Metacognition provides the self-awareness and social awareness necessary to hold forth effectively on a variety of subjects in a variety of contexts.
The authors of the “Framework” emphasize writing, and for good reason. The fundamentals of deliberative rhetoric constitute the Aristotelian essay, known commonly as the academic essay, in which the most salient aspects are a clear thesis statement and various facts to back it up. However, good deliberators will consider those aspects of their argument, as well as the following: contextualization (From where does the issue emerge?); exigence (Why is the issue worth discussing?); counterargument (What reasons may people have for disagreeing with me? Do they make good points?) and audience consideration (What does the audience know and value? What modes of conveying knowledge do they favor?).
Deliberative Rhetoric, Education and Abundance
I conceptualize an abundant life as one that goes beyond financial security and involves the acquisition of skills necessary to better ensure a flourishing life, i.e., a life of happiness and success in society. Rhetoric, specifically deliberative rhetoric, can enhance both individual and communal abundance. Individual speakers and small communities can convince others to act on an issue that needs improvement if they recognize the shared values inherent in their rationale for the improvement. When the values of individuals and communities align with widely shared societal values, an issue may have enough collective weight to be noticed and addressed.
Abundance, understood as flourishing, can open the door to a profusion of, as Aristotle might have said, “good” and “advantageous” situations. To put it syllogistically, abundance is the ability to flourish; deliberative rhetoric can enhance abundance; therefore, deliberative rhetoric can enhance the ability to flourish. If a better argument exists for—or against—emphasizing deliberative rhetoric throughout secondary and higher education, I’d love to deliberate on the issue.