C.09:  Risky Discourse in the Digital Public Sphere: Embodiment, Audience, and Intersectionality

Reviewed by LauraAnne Carroll-Adler, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA (lauraana@usc.edu)

Chair: Carrie Grant, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN

Speakers: Liz Lane, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, “Exhuming the Past, Subverting the Future: Historical Traces of Bodily Ethos and Female Speech on the Activist Web”

Mary McCall, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, “What Would Aristotle Tweet? Twitter, the Imagined Audience, and Message Reception”

Carrie Grant, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, “Are We Blogging in Circles? Ecologies of Online Intersectional Feminism”

The first speaker, Liz Lane, traced the precepts of classical rhetoric to analyze its connections to public speaking and the current political landscape. Issues of authority, permission to speak in public, and positions classically reserved for male speakers still carry echoes of earlier fears of women speaking out. Lane referred to Wendy Davis’ filibuster in the Texas legislature as an example of the problem. While #standwithwendy trended on Twitter, male representatives selectively and aggressively enforced house rules in repeated efforts to compel her to stop talking. During the debate, another female representative, Leticia Van de Putte, challenged the men by asking, "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?” Her question caused a renewed outcry. Lane noted that the Davis episode fit sadly into an ongoing, ancient discourse of erasure and dismissal, and that women are represented as closure: closed mouth, body, and life, using wording from Cheryl Glenn’s (1997) Rhetoric Retold. Since the public sphere is open, oral, and networked, women face an extra challenge to legitimize their speech. The “x+1” model, also from Glenn’s Rhetoric Retold, illustrates how the threshold for legitimacy and the right to speak and garner respect rises above the previous male threshold whenever a woman asserts the right to speak in public, including digital spaces. The backlash against women continues as gender-based attacks; threats of rape and sexual torture are leveled at the bodies assumed to be behind digital voices and words on a screen. Lane illustrated this point with slides sampling digital threats made against Anita Sarkeesian, the founder of Feminist Frequency.

Lane concluded that there are steps women are trying to take towards a more equal Internet. For example, support spaces help, but it takes ongoing work, since such spaces are often invaded by trolls. Feminists have to continue the rhetoric of disruption—just as Davis disrupted the masculine space of public speech by speaking, by physically standing, by occupying space in the front of the legislature—by using the Internet and social media to insert a woman’s voice into the public discussion.

Mary McCall followed, presenting “What Would Aristotle Tweet?” McCall used a traditional rhetorical situation graphic (Subject/Writer/Reader/Text/Context) to analyze how digital rhetoric changes the balance in the relationship between author and audience. When text is circulated on social media, our understanding of audience is challenged by the technology. When we post a message, we may intend it for a select group of readers, but the available audience is, theoretically at least, everyone. McCall used the example of twitter shaming, whereby a user’s offensive posts are picked up, then reposted and criticized in other media outlets with a much wider scope. For example, White Hunger Games fans tweeted their disappointment at the casting of African American Amandla Stenberg to play Katniss’s friend, Rue, and they found themselves called out and shamed in national online media such as Jezebel. In another case, Adria Richards’ “dongle” tweet moved a private conversation from a conference space into the larger social media space and ultimately resulted in Richards and one of the men involved losing their jobs. McCall questioned why Richards used this method, which drastically shifted the audience from two people to the entire Internet, instead of addressing the men in the conference space.

McCall referenced William Benoit and Mary Smythe (2003) and Christopher W. Tindale (2013) on the importance of rhetors reorienting their perception of audience, and McCall used Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford (1984) on the audience differences between the imagined, addressed, and the actual. Ultimately, the power of addressing an online audience can be both overwhelming and a liability if not anticipated. Authors who use these media need to be aware of and monitor and study the effect they might have on many potential audiences.

The final speaker, Carrie Grant, approached the issue of power and audience from a different direction in “Are we Blogging in Circles?” She suggested that we might imagine having more voice and more power than we actually have. Putting words out there isn’t the same as controlling the infrastructure that distributes those words, because before we can amplify the words, we need to figure out how the structure is created and maintained, and how to disrupt it. Grant used the case of an online post on Slutwalk NYC which featured a picture with the John Lennon quotation, “Woman is the n----- of the world” to show how the discussion might shut down if it challenges the comfort of mainstream beliefs. This image elicited frustration for its racism and condescension. The debate that followed sparked defensiveness from commenters on the post who insisted that those who were bothered by the quotation didn’t understand Lennon, or the 1960s. Grant suggested that listening, rather than resorting to condescending explanations, would have been more productive. The post was eventually removed, along with the discussion, but Grant was able to display it through a saved screen capture, and suggested making use of this feature to ensure that disruptive rhetoric and counterdiscourses aren’t simply erased. Grant concluded, much as Lane did, that while counterdiscourse is happening, it needs constant renewal and encouragement so that such conversations don’t dissipate. She referred to the example of the Facebook algorithm for pushing the most popular posts to the top of newsfeeds as one way that less mainstream views are hidden. We need to be aware of these algorithms and find ways to undo them.

The question and answer session that followed was lively, and continued in the hallway after the session ended. Some highlights included a commentary on the Ashley Judd situation, in which Judd fought back after her tweets in support of her college basketball team elicited a flood of misogynistic responses. The discussion also turned to the question of the efficacy of online rhetoric, and whether it constituted real action. One audience member summed it up by noting that “Hashtag activism isn’t real, but silence is real!” Grant’s materials, including slides of the images mentioned and a comprehensive list of sources, have been uploaded on the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) Connected Community website.


Benoit, William L., & Smythe, Mary Jeanette. (2003). Rhetorical theory as message reception: A cognitive response approach to rhetorical theory and criticism. Communication Studies, 54(1), 96–114.

Ede, Lisa, & Lunsford, Andrea. (1984). Audience addressed/Audience invoked: The role of audience in composition theory and pedagogy. College Composition and Communication, 35(2), 155–171.

Glenn, Cheryl. (1997). Rhetoric retold: Regendering the tradition from antiquity through the Renaissance (1st ed.). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Tindale, Christopher W. (2013). Rhetorical argumentation and the nature of audience: Toward an understanding of audience—Issues in argumentation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 46(4), 508–532.

Created by SamanthaClarkson. Last Modification: Thursday December 31, 2015 20:56:28 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.