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The Rhetoric of Public Dialogue

The Rhetoric of Public Dialogue (2003) by Rob Anderson, Kenneth N. Cissna, and Meghan K. Clune, was published in Communication Research Trends, 22(1), 2003, pp. 1-37. The authors begin by reviewing recent mostly book-length works related to public dialogue within the categories or metaphors of access and space, difference and voice, deliberation, and civility (with a separate section for public journalism). They go on to discuss a number of the more prominent contemporary public dialogue projects. NCDD figures prominently in this section, and the authors discuss both general and topic specific efforts. Download the article here.

Here is an excerpt from the first section:

You stand in the back of the room as a difficult public meeting unfolds—say, in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.A. In a nondescript community center in a lower middle-class urban neighborhood, two dozen or so well-meaning parents have gathered, most of whom are worried about their children remaining in an aging school where mold appears to present a health problem. Several school district administrators, also sincere, have been invited to address the issue. They assure the parents that the threat is probably minimal, and that they don’t want to take action now before they get definitive evidence. The district obviously doesn’t want negative publicity. Further, the administrators remind the group, although the district can finance a health risk study, closing the school even temporarily now would be a costly move that the district could not afford—especially because voters have consistently voted down bond issues.

Some of the parents are very worried, but in this working-class community they have few resources— and little time—with which to protest. They know the district is underfunded and doesn’t have the money for an extensive cleanup program. Others don’t know enough about the mold, or about district finances, to be deeply concerned, but they think the problem bears watching and want to be kept informed. Some African-American parents are convinced that administrators wouldn’t have tolerated such a health hazard for a single day in an all-white school. A small group, both black and white, seem to be passionate and ready to march on the school district headquarters if necessary.

A dynamic and charismatic woman rises to persuade the group to mobilize, to contact the newspaper and local television stations, to march on the district headquarters, and to begin to organize a strike by holding their children out of school. The “powers that be,” she argues, “have victimized our children for the last time. We can’t let our children get sicker and sicker while the school board delays and delays. Make them treat our children like the rich white suburban districts treat their children!” The excitement of the moment, combined with the frustration of inaction, generates enthusiastic responses from most of the audience. The woman volunteers to be the media spokesperson and to organize volunteers into work teams. Several people begin animated conversations, affirming how good it feels to be “doing something at last,” to be “making a difference,” to “have the issues defined for us,” to “have a leader.” “We’ve talked enough,” one man said. “Now is the time for action.” Off to the side, some others are silent, and appear perplexed.

It is hard to be neutral about children’s safety, or about the power of entrenched interests that often oppose grassroots citizen action. Observers might be justified in asking some pointed questions, however. Is this striking example of skillful individual speaking also a good example of effective communication? Activism is affirmed, and a voice previously unheard has been raised. Something will get done; the light of public opinion will shine on what may be a bad condition. Yet, in the language of the enthusiastic man who wanted more action and fewer words, when have we “talked enough”? Are there conditions in which persuasion and polarization can be disruptive and more nuanced processes of public dialogue might be more helpful?

This kind of public meeting sketches the opportunities of dialogue in public, but also the dilemmas of concerned citizens participating in the public sphere. The issues of our hypothetical yet recognizable event, in fact, are those that characterize a wide range of citizen options in democratic decision-making: How do we act in concert on significant issues, inviting and hearing relevant voices, while still recognizing the need to translate talk into social action? What is the relationship between individual leadership and group decision-making? How, as we consider both public speaking and public listening, do participants hold their own ground while remaining open to the new insights others may bring? What is the relationship between deliberation and information, and how can media in general—and journalism in particular—clarify that relation? What kinds of dialogic tensions are intro- duced when minority groups must also encounter a history of nonrecognition and diminished identity in the public sphere? What are the realistic sites and boundaries of public talk, and how can we skillfully clear the physical and psychological spaces for realistic dialogue? Which decisions are amenable to democratic deliberation, and which must rely on deeper and perhaps more expert testimony?

The radical ambiguity of such a context illustrates some crucial differences in how Western society, at least, respects—and even conceptualizes—communi- cation. For example, many would assume that a public meeting held in the absence of full scientific or technical information about a subject would be pointless or, at best, merely cathartic. Others might just as naturally assume that the meeting should be an arena in which various interests are not only expressed but confronted with competing interests in a winner-loser format. Public gatherings are commonly treated as sites for individual persuasion, individual resistance, individual tolerance, and individual rhetoric. Communication is imagined to be what one person, group, or argument does to another. A speaker who mobilizes sentiments in favor of her perspective is generally presumed to be engaging in effective communication.

In an alternate and rapidly emerging perspective, however, communication effectiveness is less readily
identified with individual achievement or with rapid action. Nor is it as readily associated with the goals of social persuasion as they have been traditionally defined. Aristotle’s well known definition of rhetoric as the art of finding the available means of persuasion in a situation has been expanded in recent years to include more invitational and facilitative rhetorical styles and more inclusive rhetorical goals. If traditional persuasion advanced the goal of changing minds and attitudes, then that clearly applied to many communication plans. Also relevant was Kenneth Burke’s (1967) reminder that rhetoric depends as well upon social processes of identification. Yet such perspectives could also leave unexamined those communication encounters in which minds and voices meet collaboratively to shape perspectives that might not have developed by individual effort alone. Further, although “dialogue” is hardly a new concept, more theorists and practitioners than ever are now concerned with tracing its processes and values through the demands of difficult and confrontive public communication settings.

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