- Freedom of Speech and the Function of Rhetoric in the United States by Michael Donnelly
When I sat down to read Michael Donnelly's Freedom of Speech and the Function of Rhetoric in the United States, I had just finished reading a news article about the dismissive remarks that Jeff Sessions made about Hawaii. Therefore, embedded in my conceptualization of Donnelly's text was the racialized othering demonstrated by Sessions and others within the Trump administration, including Trump's own gaffe about Korean and Chinese history. As I read Donnelly's introduction, I began thinking about the ways in which disinformation circulates, the gambit that politicians deploy in utilizing falsities, what Donnelly refers to as "the blatant lie strategy" (xii), and the conflation of offensiveness as unreasonableness. Donnelly's argument appears timely as critical rhetoric is proposed as a sort of solvent by which we are able to dissolve the adhesive discourses that have worked, for roughly a century, to compel our understanding of "freedom of speech" to remain stuck in incredibly limited ways, ways that influence how we as citizens have become, ourselves, stuck in both our apathy and our polarization. I use stuck here as a metaphor: adhesives provide the illusion that numerous things are naturally cohesive and function to obstruct perspectives that might belie that unity by concealing the fractured, historical process by which those very things are co-constructed.
Chapter 1 highlights the ways in which "freedom of speech" has been deployed over the course of U.S. history. Donnelly remarks on several instances wherein claims to freedom of speech are both recognized and dismissed, including the Charlie Hebdo attack and cases from public universities, such as Marquette University, wherein questions of academic freedom and students' freedom of speech are brought to the forefront of [End Page 156] how discourses of "freedom of speech" are deployed today. Particularly, he notes how the conflation of freedom of speech and academic freedom positions free speech as necessarily protecting the expression of opinions: "From this perspective, students with opinions that are, say, racist or homophobic, are not only entitled to those opinions but to express those opinions in the classroom" (6). However, in opposition to this, he makes note of the triviality with which the "Founding Fathers" treated freedom of speech to combat the common argument that freedom of speech is "the sine qua non of democracy" (8) and challenges the reader to critically assess the historical reality of "freedom of speech" and its discursive deployment. Donnelly writes that "the point is that a great many people—including many of the Founding Fathers—inside and outside of government, thought little or nothing of proscribing speech when it suited them," concluding that "freedom of speech was not, as its many proponents would proclaim, 'fundamental' to democracy in America" (13).
Chapter 2 deploys critical responses to Jürgen Habermas's The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, highlighting the illusion that Habermas created. Donnelly notes critical responses that argue that the bourgeoisie public sphere was neither as inclusive (as it was exclusionary on the basis of gender, race, and class) nor as monolithic as Habermas described. Donnelly cites Patricia Roberts-Miller to counter Habermas's position, arguing that the bourgeoisie public sphere was, in actuality, not a public per se, but a counterpublic. He does this to justify a revisionist conceptualization of history, arguing that the U.S. Constitution should be understood similarly. In this way, the Constitution is read as a device that makes a concerted effort to "at once implement but constrain democracy" (17). Following this logic, it becomes evident that the idolized "Founding Fathers," who are often touted as democratic superheroes by many Americans, actually held the belief that "democracy itself was dangerous" (17). This revisionary position is similar to other works in the field, including Jennifer Mercieca's Founding Fictions, which maps out this historical revisionism in much more detail.
In chapter 3, Donnelly deploys Foucault's discussion of parrhesia to demonstrate...