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Faculty Forum Papers



David A. Bella
Department of Civil Engineering
Oregon State University

November 1990

Rhetoric and Repentance

During the week prior to the recent elections, I reviewed a manuscript entitled "Justificatory Narratives Surrounding Defense Appropriations", written by Catherine Ann Collins of Willamette University. The manuscript led me to think. The purpose of this forum paper is to share these thoughts with you. Though I draw heavily upon Collins' fine paper, I accept full responsibility for what follows.

General Concerns

Events beyond our control often "happen", but the "meaning" of these events and our responses to them are largely constructed through the stories, metaphors, and analogies that we ourselves employ. These constructed meanings form the background against which our "rational" assessments are made. We may see ourselves as rational and reasonable, and yet the background we ourselves construct may limit and direct "rational" choice. We come to see few options other than those that conform to the rhetoric and narratives that we have chosen to give meaning to what has happened. In brief, the stories, metaphors, and analogies that we employ determine our response to events as much as the events themselves. In more extreme cases, "rational" choice may be little more than the outcomes our rhetoric has left us.

Unless challenged by opposing views and reflective self-criticism, the rhetoric and narratives that we employ reflect our needs to justify ourselves. Too easily, we leave out our own roles in muddled events. Of course, we've been warned of this. The parable of the Pharisee and Publican (tax collector) who went to the temple to pray tells us that the one who went home justified was not the Pharisee who recalled his own accomplishments. Instead, it was the one who prayed, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."

Current National Rhetoric

Collins' manuscript examines the narrative justifications that political leaders have employed to justify violence in the form of military actions. She writes:

"By careful choice of narrative elements--story forms, heroes and villains, and the motives for action--the President, members of the Administration, and the news media covering these political elites create narratives which justify military actions and defense expenditures by defining the preparation for violence or actual violence as the logical and necessary response to the plot lines they initiate.""The creation of characters, especially villains, in national stories helps us define reality. When the story form defines the "other" as alien, as villain, violence is justified by the actions, real or projected (always unwarranted and alien), of the other.""Characters who are consistently depicted as villainous are linked with nefarious plots.

Although these words were written more than two years ago, they describe the recent and continuing rhetoric we have heard from our own leaders as they compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler and tell stories of his atrocities. "But", you might object, "Hussein is in fact a ruthless, powerful and dangerous person!" I will not deny this. What concerns me is the degree to which this rhetoric has been shaped by our own need for self-justification, the kind of unauthentic justification that the Pharisee of the parable sought through his own words.

The terrible charges made against Hussein could have been made several years ago. It was at this time that he broke moral barriers that we may now be unable to reconstruct; he employed chemical weapons on both soldiers and civilians! Our objections then were virtually silent. Our rhetoric then did not define him as a Hitler. The rhetoric that we choose to employ now but not then is largely a result of our own needs. We now have needs for such rhetoric. We did not have such needs then. Clearly our needs have to do with low cost oil. If the Middle East produced broccoli and turnips instead of oil, we wouldn't be there. Moreover, without the enormous cash payments by oil-addicted nations and the subsequent sales to recover such payments, the level of weaponry in this region of the world would be far less.

I object to the rhetoric and narratives that our leaders now employ because they omit our own role in this crisis. They say nothing of our continued waste of energy, particularly over the last decade. They speak little of our historical neglect of Arab grievances, particularly those of the Palestinians. They say nothing of our own silence on Hussein's atrocities when he served our own needs and when our opportunities for nonviolent influence were greater! They say nothing of our own role in the development of a vast technological system that simultaneously consumed vast quantities of oil and produces vast quantities of sophisticated weapons distributed throughout the world.

Our own responsibilities for the current crisis, our own dismal failures, are omitted from the stories. If the analogy of "Hitler" applies to Hussein, should not the metaphor of "addiction" apply to our own desperate need for a "cheap oil fix"? To admit our own failures is not to justify or overlook those of Hussein! Rather, I am concerned that our selective rhetoric becomes the Pharisee's prayer in the parable of Jesus, self-justifying to the point that only violence may seem rational and justified and our won sins are overlooked as we focus on the sins of others.

The Plank in our Own Eye

I began with a rather general and abstract (some might say esoteric) discussion and then shifted to more immediate national concerns. Some might interpret this only as a criticism of our national leadership. They would be mistaken! In a democracy, any criticism of political leaders, however appropriate, must be self-criticism by the citizens themselves.

In four surveys between 1976 and 1988, American "opinion leaders" (selected randomly form "Who's Who in America") were asked about the importance of foreign policy goals (Holsti and Rosenau, 1990). In all surveys, the goal that received the highest percent "very important" rating was "secure energy supplies." Out of sixteen choices, the lowest percent "very important" rating was given to the goal "promote democracy." Clearly, the values suggested by these results are not the kind that justify the violence and sacrifices of war. Thus, there is now a need for self-service rhetoric that omits the real values that have guided our own contributions to the current crisis. But, it is not enough to criticize these "opinion leaders." These are the people, more than any other group, who have received the most from higher education. Their deficiencies reflect our own.

We have failed! We, university faculty and administrators, have done all the busy work needed to sustain a university, but, contrary to our own rhetoric, we have failed to sustain discourse on concerns that (1) do not fall within the specialized domains of our department, and (2) do not lead to external funding. We have omissions in our own justificatory narratives that are not at all unrelated to the rhetorical omissions of our political leaders and our most influential graduates. I will mention only one.

In recent years, I've asked hundreds of students and graduates, "Have you taken a course at OSU on energy conservation?" I don't mean a course where the subject is merely raised. I mean a course taken with the same level of discipline and effort as chemistry, mathematics, literature, or any of the other subjects that we faculty take seriously (such as the fluid mechanics course that I am now teaching). I have found virtually no students who answer "yes".

How do we explain such an omission? Self-serving rhetoric is, in large part, the answer. When we describe our accomplishments, which I do not deny, we fail to mention that what we do is largely, and sometimes exclusively, determined by the defense of turf and the hustling of research grants. Even when courses are listed that appear to break this pattern (i.e., the Science, Technology, and Society courses of the Baccalaureate core), we find very little sustained interdisciplinary discourse among the faculty. Where are the interdisciplinary faculty development programs, seminars, conferences, and other scholarly activities essential for substance rather than mere form? What does our "research" office do to facilitate unfunded scholarly work? Who in our administrative system is responsible for interdisciplinary faculty development for subjects that extend beyond the domains of departments and schools? Where is the leadership of tenured faculty on such matters? Can faculty justify tenure if they are unwilling to initiate discourse that doesn't pay? Answers to such questions are far less flattering than our self-serving rhetoric.

But, again, such criticism must not be merely directed at those "higher up in the system." For faculty, self-criticism is essential because much of our own rhetoric is cynical, shifting the blame to those higher up while justifying our own limited actions. We faculty have gone through several years of curricula revisions. The real decisions we made arose far more from the protection of turf and budgets than from our scholarly inquiries. The rhetoric employed to defend specialized turf often expressed broad and noble concerns. But, in practice, such concerns were rarely the subject of ongoing faculty discourse and inquiry beyond our specialized domains. We professors often employ cynical and self-serving rhetoric to justify our own narrowness when, in fact, few people are in better positions to sustain broad discourse than tenured professors.

Our greatest social influence does not arise from the reports we write or consulting we give. Our influence and our opportunities for real leadership arise through the ideas, skills and practices that our graduates take with them into the world. Our failures of leadership, initiative and spirit are particularly pernicious because they exert a cumulative influence long after our narrow turf battles are over and the grant money we so earnestly sought is gone. The educational deficiencies of professionals and citizens, our graduates, have accumulated within the physical and social infrastructures of our world. It is the demands of these infrastructures that the young men and women now in the Middle East are there to defend.

Am I being too harsh? Have I failed to make a connection between the justificatory rhetoric of our political leaders and our own? You tell me. I have a son in the Middle East (First Cavalry Division, U.S. Army); his recent letter tells me that forty-three have already died. Tell me, is the reason why he's there unrelated to blank looks on our students' faces when I ask them, "What have you learned about energy conservation?" I don't think so! Am I being too extreme in my assessments, too judgmental, harsh or disrespectful? I think not! Read the newspapers. As a nation, we are seriously considering actions that would send young men and women to violence and death. If such talk does not provoke critical self-reflection, I can't imagine what would!

Collins, C.A., "Justificatory Narratives Surrounding Defense Appropriations" draft manuscript of a conference paper presented at The Military Industrial Complex: Eisenhower's Warning Three Decades Later, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, October 1988

Holsti, O.R. and Rosenau, J.N., "The Emerging U.S. Consensus on Foreign Policy", Orbis, Vol. 34, No.4, Fall, 1990, pp.579-595.

David A. Bella
November 20, 1990
Civil Engineering

Postscript. On December 15, 1990, the Oregonian reported the following: "White House aides led by chief of staff John H. Sununu have told Energy Secretary James D. Watkins to remove conservation measures from his proposed National Energy Strategy...Proposals to stiffen auto fuel-efficiency standards and to increase use of non-gasoline fuels drew particularly heavy fire from Sununu, chief economic advisor Michael J. Boskin and budget director Richard G. Darman...Those three top Bush aides also attacked virtually all of Watkins proposals to encourage conservation -- such as higher fuel taxes and tough energy efficiency standards for appliances -- which they denounced as unacceptable government interference into free markets."

Opinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum articles are not necessarily those of the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.