With the general election less than two months away, I’m exhausted almost daily putting new batteries into my thinking cap so that I can be a responsible, critical listener to the appeals of all candidates.
I was an English professor for 44 years before I retired in 2001, but I dare not place my brain on automatic pilot given the billions spent to persuade us.
In 1958-59, my first year of teaching, without comment I gave to a class at Auburn University, then still under legally mandated segregation, a pamphlet circulated by the Ku Klux Klan. I acquired the pamphlet as a freebee on a reading table at the best fish-fry restaurant in town.
We had read several essays about persuasion in our freshman text. To see how much they had learned, I asked my students to analyze the Klan document as a piece of persuasion. I did not tell them whether I was persuaded, and I certainly did not ask them to be persuaded, just to read it and to analyze how it attempted to persuade.
I was appalled that six out of the 25 students who analyzed the pamphlet concluded with variations of this comment: “Dear Mister Crew (my birth name), before you showed us this pamphlet, I knew that black people were a threat to our way of life in Alabama, but I did not know that Jews and Catholics are. I thank you for giving me this examination. I assure you that I will go out from here to work against Catholics and Jews as conscientiously as my family has always opposed blacks.”
What to me was an obviously illogical abuse of discourse — with ad hominum arguments, name-calling, slander, jingoism, incoherence, and many other flawed strategies — had not been obvious at all to six of the students.
I mark the beginning of my serious interest in rhetoric from that troubling experience.
In 1966, at 29, I decided to leave Britain for the United States. My luck on the annual academic lottery stuck me as a graduate assistant at the University of Alabama, a sleepy Southern university more famous for its football team than for its scholarship. My heavy Oxbridgean accent (clinch your molars and route the sounds through the wisdom teeth) probably gave away my mood. Just before the end of my first class, I turned to the board. As I wrote the assignment, I said (in a heavy Southern dialect):
“If y’all have any questions about this material, you can meet me in my office in Clark Hall any morning between 9 and 11.”
I turned around. No one smiled. All glared, as if I had mocked them.
Again at the board, I wrote: “Which dialect is mine by birthright? Raise your hands. British____ Southern____ “
Everyone mistook me for an alien. As we talked long after the bell, one student said, “But Mr. Crew, I thought that nobody who could talk that purty, that convincingly would ever admit to bein from heah!”
Alabama became a state in 1819, 43 years after the 13 colonies declared independence from Britain. To prepare for their first papers, my students telephoned dozens of stores and offices to ask for routine information, first in British, then a few days later, in Southern. They documented that the speech of the colonizer uniformly privileged persons 189 years after colonialism had allegedly left America.
In 1987, my young colleagues were recent Yale graduates working at Chinese University of Hong Kong. To prompt our students to think critically about colonialism, we asked them to read Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” T. S. Eliot’s essay on Kipling, George Orwell’s essay on Eliot’s essay, and Stalky’s speech to the Kipling Society (Dunsterville). Then, they had to prepare their own speech to give to the Kipling Society, using their authority as one of the “burdens.”
Before I even left class with their floppy disks, one of my colleagues, a New Englander now immersing himself fully in the Cantonese language and culture, passed by my window, and said:
“Sorry to interrupt, but I must talk to you. Several in my tutorial missed the point and, without any irony, apologized for burdening the British! They claimed that the Chinese do not deserve the colonizers’ kindness and generosity!”
Released from another prison, Byron’s Bonivard warned,
“So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are: — even I
Regained my freedom with a sigh.”
Now back to the candidates’ regular ads. Be sure to attend closely to the battery alerts in your thinking caps. Fare well!