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November 25, 2020+Erec Smith
+Constructive Disagreement

A Rhetoric of Common Values

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, "Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog." Narration begins at 1:12.

Although the 2020 Presidential election is behind us, the contentiousness that accompanied its arrival persists. However, with nowhere to go but forward, Americans would do well to figure out how to coexist. This is a tall order. Bipartisan communication is a difficult but necessary aspect of democracy. Put simply, to reunite America, we must be able to talk across the divide.

I will not be the first or last to say that bipartisan dialogue is imperative to America’s unification. However, talking to perceived enemies can induce discomfort, or even disgust, most would rather avoid. Although our discomfort may stem from what we think we know about those with whom we disagree, discovering admirable qualities we didn’t know about them might open the door to mutual understanding. In the process, we may discover similarities where we previously only saw differences. To discover these similarities and our common values, we would do well to understand rhetorical concepts like Discourse and the values, beliefs, and attitudes that go with them.


As a rhetorician who studies the unifying potential of language, I see the first step toward recognizing common values as the acknowledgement of the sociolinguistic concept of Discourse (spelled with a capital “D” to distinguish it from the more common understanding of discourse as conversation). Discourses are described by linguist James Gee in Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics as “ways of being in the world, or forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, social identities, as well as gestures, glances, body positions and clothes.” For example, the Discourse of traditional academia which involves an emphasis on objectivity, precision, formal argument, and an acknowledgement of counterarguments, may not go over well in a dive bar in which the Discourse not only de-emphasizes such aspects, but frowns upon the pulling of rank. (For example, my earlier “As a rhetorician” statement wouldn’t fly.) One would do well to know the preferred Discourse of a context before attempting to interact.

In addition to their relevance to us as individuals, Discourses can describe the preferences of whole communities. Each of us is born into a Discourse that ultimately shapes us into the people we become, providing us with the appropriate “social roles” that others within that Discourse community will recognize and, ideally, accept. When we do not recognize others’ social roles (i.e., how they fit into the “Discourse” to which that person abides), we see strangers and outsiders.

So, what we consider normal, good, or right depends on the Discourse in which we are raised. The fact that a person who may seem crazy within the confines of one Discourse may be considered quite normal in the confines of another suggests people we deem abnormal may just be abiding by a different “normal” from the one we prefer.

Recognizing the existence of different Discourses is important, but insufficient; we must work to find similarities across those differences.

Values, Beliefs, Attitudes

Based on Gee’s definition, a Discourse consists of a set of “values, beliefs, attitudes.” Those three features may serve as the best bridge between Discourses. Often, they share values, beliefs, and attitudes, but differ in the emphases each Discourse puts on them. For example, most people, regardless of their respective Discourse communities, embrace values like “honesty” and “loyalty,” but a Discourse may put more emphasis on one than another.

For instance, let’s say a friend confesses to you that he robbed a bank. If you put more emphasis on loyalty, you will keep your friend’s secret and hope that he does not get caught. However, if you put more emphasis on honesty, you may feel obligated to report your friend to the authorities. Both values are good, but they can bump up against each other in certain instances.

If we apply this understanding to Discourse communities as a whole, we can see how people can interpret the same phenomena differently. Athletes kneeling during the National Anthem is appalling to those who embrace what Moral Foundations theorists would call the values of loyalty and authority, but endearing to those emphasizing values of care and fairness. Both parties may agree that all those values are good, but some are embraced more than others.

But so what? Knowing that different Discourses exist and that similar values between Discourse communities can be emphasized differently doesn’t solve the problem of communicative contentiousness. In order to use these realizations to alleviate societal contentions, we must use our similarities as a foundation for conversation.

The philosopher Kenneth Burke used the term “identification” to describe how to make the best of shared values and promote a sense of commonality. Burke writes that you can persuade a person “only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.” Put simply, the more one can highlight shared interests, the more likely one is to dialogue effectively.

How might this look? Activist Jonathan Smucker suggests utilizing the concept of “narrative insurgency,” a tactic based on “points of connection—i.e., common ground between their belief system and yours.” This is to say, we should do our best to investigate another’s Discourse for commonalities and use those commonalities as starting points for communication.

In his book Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, Smucker provides an example of narrative insurgency involving an environmental conservationist speaking to a climate change denier, who cited creationism as his primary argument: “When speaking to creationists about environmental issues, for example, an effective point of entry might be to emphasize humanity’s Biblical mandate to care for God’s creation.” This emphasis on common ground instead of disagreement may develop a level of empathy that transcends debate and better ensures dialogue. The possible recognition of one’s values in the Discourses of others, especially others once deemed as “antagonists,” is an ideal first-step in creative generative dialogue. As long as we can refrain from having narrative insurgency devolve into accusations of hypocrisy (e.g., “You are a Christian, yet you don’t even know your Bible!”) this tactic has potential.

To sum up, Discourse shapes who we are and how we see the world. We can find shared values within our respective Discourses and use them as a starting point for dialogue.

All this being said, some caveats are in order. First, many people belong to more than one Discourse community. For example, someone could belong to a mixed martial arts club and a pacifist club at the same time--two seemingly disparate groups. What’s more, context will determine which Discourse community is relevant at a given time; we must not judge the pacifist as a mixed martial artist while he participates in nonviolent protest. Second, I want to be clear that promoting a mode of communication based on commonalities does not mean we should try to ignore differences. Differences enhance diversity which, in turn, enhances our ability to innovate and move forward in productive ways. Approaching a problem from a range of perspectives provides more viewpoints to choose from or even synthesize, therefore increasing the possibility of finding effective solutions.

Ultimately, our goal should be to advance society in ways beneficial to all. Communication is imperative to such goals, and acknowledging shared values can help put us on the right track. This will not be easy, but it doesn’t really have to be; it only has to be productive.


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