Fall 2010 Seminar at

Furman University


Rhetoric in a Rancorous Republic: Toward an American Controversia



The rhetoric faculty at Furman University hosted an engaging discussion on cultivating and moving beyond "civility" in political discourse.  Seventeen scholars gathered around the historic dining table of the university's first president (and son of namesake Richard Furman).  The setting was unique--the two-story Cherrydale mansion, built in the 1850s, was moved to campus in the late 90s and now sits on a hill atop Furman's campus.

The conversation began with a look at recent political oratory by John McCain (at the New School) and Barack Obama (at Michigan and Notre Dame) on the quality of current debate.  As participants discussed the relationship of text and context in the new media environment, attendants agreed that political leaders who frame debates and prime their audiences in terms of "civility" rarely accrue political gain or success in doing so.  Moreover, despite the attempted rigor with which a few politicians apply the term, the contemporary media environment flattens the concept to one of accusation and silencing rather than one of invitation for reasonable discussion.  Others in the discussion noted that this was not simply a new phenomenon; even in the classic cases of Lincoln and FDR, relatively few gains could be made by challenging rivals to seek the "better angels of their nature" or achieve "malice toward none." Model performances of prudence and decorum functioned better to cultivate these sensibilities in their audiences.

After a small break, special guest Danielle Vinson (Furman Political Science), alongside Sean O'Rourke and Cynthia King, recounted the 2008 Bush Commencement address at Furman and the rancorous controversy and dissent.  Following a media presentation of the news clips of that time, Sean O'Rourke especially discussed the backlash against dissenters and the violence threatened against "liberal Furman faculty" and their families.

The conversation ended with an attempt to move "beyond civility."  While some turned toward theories of deliberation, protest, institutional power, and the Ciceronian notion of controversia, others proposed that we move outside that more traditional language to the discourse of "spectacle" and "pranking."  Although scholars were open to those vocabularies expanding the conversation, especially given the priorities of media circulation and coverage today, they also held deep reservations about the ability of the vocabulary of "spectacle" to cultivate reason-giving or attune critique to the specificity of context.  Many participants agreed that future scholarship and teaching would need to better reconcile emerging theory and the contemporary media landscape of news clips and Twitter with speech ethics situated in the tradition of rhetoric and public sphere theory.

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After the discussion, participants dined in downtown Greenville, walked the Reedy River Falls Park, and enjoyed ice cream . . . with questionable civility.

For a complete list of readings and logistics, see the details page.

For more pictures from the Furman Civility colloquium, go to the
photo album.