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Toward a Civil Discourse

by Sharon Crowley

Publication Year: 2006

This book examines how, in the current political climate, Americans find it difficult to discuss civic issues frankly and openly with one another. Because America is dominated by two powerful discourses--liberalism and Christian fundamentalism, each of which paints a very different picture of America and its citizens' responsibilities toward their country—there is little common ground, and hence Americans avoid disagreement for fear of giving offense. Sharon Crowley considers the ancient art of rhetoric as a solution to the problems of repetition and condemnation that pervade American public discourse. Crowley recalls the historic rhetorical concept of stasis--where advocates in a debate agree upon the point on which they disagree, thereby recognizing their opponent as a person with a viable position or belief. Most contemporary arguments do not reach stasis, and without it, Crowley states, a nonviolent resolution cannot occur. She investigates the cultural factors that lead to the formation of beliefs, and how beliefs can develop into densely articulated systems and political activism. Crowley asserts that rhetorical invention (which includes appeals to values and the passions) is superior in some cases to liberal argument (which often limits its appeals to empirical fact and reasoning) in mediating disagreements where participants are primarily motivated by a moral or passionate commitment to beliefs. She examines numerous current issues and opposing views, and discusses the consequences to society when, more often than not, argumentative exchange does not occur. She underscores the urgency of developing a civil discourse, and through a review of historic rhetoric and its modern application, provides a foundation for such a discourse-whose ultimate goal, in the tradition of the ancients, is democratic discussion of civic issues.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Series: Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture

Front Cover, Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 1-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-x

...the principles or the specific teachings of apocalyptist discourse, and the more I study apocalyptism, the more intense becomes my desire not only to dissent from it but to warn others of the ideological dangers it poses to democracy. I raise this point here because my status as an outsider to conservative religious thought brings to the fore the central...

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pp. xi-xii

...particular to Janet Atwill, Barb Biesecker, and Deb Hawhee for their example and for their scholarship. I also owe much that is not explicit in the text to Victor Villanueva for those conversations about racism that I never could get over, and to Victor Vitanza for showing me what is possible in rhetorical...

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1. On (Not) Arguing About Religion and Politics

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pp. 1-23

...In the spring of 2003, during the American invasion of Iraq, my friend Michael attended a peace vigil. As he stood quietly on a street corner with other participants, a young man leaped very close to his face and screamed: “Traitor! Why don’t you go to Iraq and suck Saddam’s dick?” Michael was...

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2. Speaking of Rhetoric

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pp. 24-57

...Rhetoric is a very old art. Conceivably its practice began when human beings learned to talk, and surely when they discovered differences of opinion. Theories of rhetoric developed in the West as early as the sixth century bce, and rhetoric was studied in Western schools from ancient times through the Renaissance. Throughout this long period it was taught...

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3. Belief and Passionate Commitment

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pp. 58-101

...objectives, which were called the “offices” or “duties” of rhetoric by medieval and Renaissance rhetoricians, was interpreted by them to mean that the aims of rhetoric are to teach, to delight, and to move (Vickers 50). This formulation allowed rhetoric teachers to establish a hierarchy of preferred genres, with eloquence (movere) ranking as the highest...

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4. Apocalyptism

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pp. 102-132

...In the fall of 2003 I borrowed an audiotape of a novel entitled Left Behind from my local library, thinking it was similar to the other light fiction I often listen to while commuting. What I heard stunned me. While waiting for class to begin one day, I mentioned to some graduate students that I was listening to a frightening narrative involving mass disappearances...

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5. Ideas do Have Consequences: Apocalyptism and the Christian Right

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pp. 133-164

...marriage and other civil rights to gays. As I watched the election returns, I saw relatively early in the evening that these initiatives had passed in all of the states considering them. I knew then that the Republican party would win the presidency even though all the votes cast for national offices would not be counted for some time. For a brief moment...

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6. The Truth is Out There: Apocalyptism and Conspiracy

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pp. 165-188

...Lee Quinby recommends a Foucauldian brand of skepticism as an antidote to apocalyptic thinking. This brand of skepticism “encourages analysis of how truths are culturally established and embodied as experience. Millennial skepticism specifically questions truth claims that are authorized through faith alone” (Millennial 8). This approach challenges...

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7. How Beliefs Change

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pp. 189-202

...rejected Klan ideology. The change occurred when the Klansman heard a leader of the group say that upon its assumption of power “defectives of a variety of kinds would be put into special colonies or otherwise dealt with. This . . . point was accompanied by a list of defectives, and...


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pp. 203-218

Works Cited

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pp. 219-234


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pp. 235-244

Back Cover

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p. 258-258

E-ISBN-13: 9780822973003
E-ISBN-10: 0822973006
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822959236
Print-ISBN-10: 0822959232

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture