Reviewed by LauraAnne Carroll-Adler (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Beth Daniell, Kennesaw State University, GA
Elizabeth Vander Lei, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI
Anne Ruggles Gere, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Thomas Amorose, Seattle Pacific University, WA
Anne Ruggles Gere opened with her paper “Mormons and Rhetorics of Difference,” which focused on rhetorical theory in relation to talking about religious differences between traditional Christian faiths and Mormonism. A history of Mormonism—and its beginning in the ideas percolating through the Second Great Awakening—set up a discussion of the contentious resistance to Mormonism from its founding through the killing of John Smith in 1844 and the eventual settlement in Utah. Gere shared images of antipolygamy warnings broadsides and made connections between abolitionism and the antipolygamists. The two issues became conflated, she pointed out, around the question of autonomy and consent, as polygamy was considered to be a nonconsensual relationship for the women involved.
Today’s images of Mormonism are more positive and include Sister Wives and, of course, Mitt Romney. The relationship between Mormonism and Christianity, however, is still contested. While Mormons see themselves as Christians, the World Council of Churches, representing Christian ecumenism, does not include the Church of Latter Day Saints. So, the question becomes, “What rhetoric is available that would be useful for inclusion with an acknowledgement of difference?” What we’re looking for, Gere argued, is a “Rhetoric of Hospitality” that would engage the Other and would recognize differences without attacking or marginalizing. She referred to Martin E. Marty‘s work When Faiths Collide. According to Gere, our new rhetoric needs to adopt covenants of conversation and engage the Other with a respect for differences.
The second speaker, Elizabeth Vander Lei, addressed the rhetorical positioning of another nonmainstream religious figure with her paper “Now I Think with My Own Mind: Malcolm X’s Ecstatic and Realist Humanism.” One of the main points of her presentation was that Malcolm X has become a “cultural commodity” many believe they already know and understand, despite having no real familiarity with the man’s actual writings or the progression of his ideas through two conversions: from Christianity to Nation of Islam, and later from Nation of Islam to orthodox Islam. Another key point of discussion was the tension between a drive towards racial and religious ecumenism in X’s evolving ideology and the incompatibility of his Muslim beliefs with ecumenism. She noted his ecstatic vision of racial harmony in which he felt as if released from a prison of racial hostility—but she also reminded us that his continuing embrace of Garveyism and Pan-Africanism contradicted those all-inclusive visions. Ultimately, Vander Lei noted, we cannot simplify the complex, sometimes contradictory rhetoric of this historical figure.
She concluded by recounting a story of Malcolm X meeting two white Americans on a flight. After conversing with him for some time, the Americans found out who he was and exclaimed “You’re not Malcolm X!” and then “You’re not who I was looking for!” Vander Lei used this example to emphasize that we need to resist the urge to believe we know the man because we know his reputation.
Thomas Amarose completed the panel with his (officially untitled) talk on the Rhetoric of Dissensus. After 9/11, he noted, we were told that “everything had changed”—but it hadn’t. Religious intolerance crowded out the possibility of ecumenism. The rhetoric of the jihad and the rhetoric of Christian exceptionalism could not coexist in the same space. Amarose proposed a rhetoric of dissensus that acknowledges alterity and tension, and he encouraged rhetoricians to stay engaged because of—not in spite of—difference, and to move beyond the patronizing notion of “tolerance.”
Amarose connected these practical, political considerations of rhetoric with the more theoretical concepts of Derrida through a critique of classical rhetoric and its reliance on a centralized system of justice and a ruling order. The project of deconstruction, he argued, becomes a move towards justice, wherein those who have not been given a voice to consent to the system—and to their place in it, or outside it—are given space to speak and participate. Justice, he proclaimed, comes not through consensus but through dissensus—disruptions and fissures in the dominant system.
Returning to the practical/political realm, Amarose noted that welcoming voices of difference and friction would provide a “genuine rhetoric” for a multicultural society like the United States, and would better enable us to comprehend others’ views towards us, even if they are hostile.
The questions after the presentation picked up on several of the open threads. How, one audience member asked, does the rhetor deal with difference? How would Malcolm X, for example, manage an ethos from which to speak? Vander Lei’s answer acknowledged that X had trouble sorting this out, and noted that the contradictions may have kept him from controlling his legacy.
Gere noted that the Utah statehood movement benefited from a “rhetoric of feminism.” Mormon women reached out to non-Mormon women to find common ground and establish empathy.
Another question focused on values and how we inevitably compare and rank values. The rhetor, this audience member suggested, needs to understand these hierarchical judgments of differences. Romney, the respondent suggested, was ineffective in connecting with the Christian evangelical base because he would have been unable to address Christian/Mormon differences without recourse to value estimations of the different religions.
The moderator, Beth Daniell, ended with a quotation concluding the play Art, by Yasmina Reza, about a trio of middle-aged men who disagree over the merits of one’s newly-purchased painting. After bickering through the entire play, the three men are still friends and still disagree about the painting. One of the men finally concludes “I don’t think rational argument ever works!” We can’t always find the right words to make disagreements end, Daniell concluded, but we must find the words that will show us how to live with difference.