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UWF symposium probes communication in the 21st century

Christal Seahorn.jpeg
Christal Seahorn

On Friday, Dr. Christal Seahorn and the University of West Florida department of English will present an interactive symposium on activist rhetorics. Seahorn is an associate professor of writing and digital rhetoric at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

During the symposium, participants will have the opportunity to discuss ideas for activist rhetorical expression.

In advance of her presentation, she answered a few questions about 21st-century communication and its perils.

Each day we are bombarded by emails, tweets, Facebook posts, news, information, misinformation, and talking heads on dozens of 24-hour cable channels. How can the average person consume all this and find facts? 

Dr. Christal Seahorn: So true. We have access to a near-constant flood of content. Certainly, the best suggestion I can give the average person is to exercise the power to step away from devices. None of us need to consume 24-hour news and information, and there is good research showing that taking a break from the news and social media allows us to be more present in our daily lives and, over time, can result in numerous mental and physical health benefits. So, be good to yourself and step away from the screen each day and do something that is fully present and rejuvenating. 

Though, part of your question acknowledges the valuable need to be informed. So, when the average person does consume content, information literacy skills are​​​​​ essential. Tools like the CRAAP analysis technique from California State University-Chico (i.e., evaluating a source of information's currency-relevance-accuracy-authorship-purpose) and reliable fact-checking websites like FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and the Pew Research Center help us use critical-thinking skills and respect for expertise and rigorous processes to learn how to decipher fact-based information from misinformation, or the purposeful deception of disinformation. 

Elected officials – whether city councils, school boards, or our state and federal legislatures — no longer have thoughtful discussion and debate. Issues are no longer discussed but devolve into personal attacks about masks, vaccines, critical race theory, and other issues. Where and when do you think we started to shed heat, not light, on substantive issues? 

​What you accurately observe is not new. Records show that even as early as the 5th century BCE sophists, professionals paid to be good at public speaking and to weigh in on civic life performed those duties from a subjective and individualistic perspective.

Admittedly, times of wide sociopolitical division like the one in which we currently live where progressives and conservatives are so far apart increase the sense of combat entrenched tribalism around important societal issues like the ones you list in your question. Feeling embattled activates a survival instinct and places more focus on debate and winning instead of discussion and pursuit of communal health and development.

These divisions definitely reduce the incentive for dialectical reasoning and civic discourse. Personal identity is always wrapped in the topics of debate; after all, we cannot possess a lived experience other than our own. Empathy and patience, a genuine willingness to understand the needs of another, and the selflessness required to act for the greater good take time and can be difficult in times of battle.  Ad hominem attacks are far more expedient and have always been a political resource because name-calling is simple and memorable and makes for effective branding in fast-moving information cycles.

Putting public and persistent pressure on elected officials to de-emphasize winning, cronyism, and self-preservation is a pivotal first step toward making the kind of change you speak of where fair-minded intellectual debate drives legislation. 

How can we get back to talking to one another, not talking past one another? I have read on Facebook where adult children can no longer discuss COVID-19 nor politics with their parents. It’s a sad commentary to think the rhetoric of 2021 had created a chasm between family members. 

​This shift started even before the pandemic, right? A Reuters poll right after 2016 found that nearly 20% of respondents had stopped speaking to a family member as a direct response to the election results. American political discourse in recent years has forced conversations around race, climate change, economics, and public health, that were previously taboo topics at many dinner tables. Getting back to productive and reasoned discourse requires a genuine value for diverse perspectives and a sincere desire to recognize common humanity. 

Some of it, we learn in college classrooms, like understanding how logical fallacies undermine sound reasoning and acknowledging that our individual perspectives naturally create cognitive biases that we must recognize and challenge, but those concepts may not help in conversations with family members where history and hierarchy make disagreeing respectfully difficult. In fact, if your family is like mine, uncomfortable conversations about confirmation bias or fact-checking are met with eye-rolling. The heart of your question is much more down-home. How can we get along better with people with whom we have a fundamental difference in core values. A couple of things I have been trying to practice are more of what Krista Ratcliffe calls "rhetorical listening" and what Gloria Anzaldúa ​​writes about nepantla. Rhetorical listening involves intentionally choosing to take a stance of openness in conversations of difference to gain an understanding of our collective humanity; Anzaldúa's nepantla asserts that actively participating in this middle ground, a conversational border that is uncomfortable because of the instability and ideological differences present, the possibility of building new, can generate more enlightened understanding and ultimately inspire empathy and change.

Of course, not everyone is ready for reasoned discussions that challenge identity and ideology, and so I encourage all my students and colleagues who engage in this work to be OK leaving conversations that are harmful and unproductive. 

In an ideal world, the Internet would bring us together to debate issues, reach solutions and solve problems. It would allow friendships to continue and new ones to blossom. Instead, it’s often a steady stream of mean-spirited and dangerous words designed to further drive us apart. ​

My comment on this observation would be to encourage you and your listeners to have faith. The Internet can be a dark place, certainly, and the ease-of-access and nonstop content make it fertile ground for trolls, doxxers, and cyberbullies looking to demean and disrupt, but all of what you describe in the opening of this comment is true, too. For all its trappings, the Internet as a communicative tool almost single-handedly allowed the world to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Relative ubiquity and low barriers to access allow historically under-included communities to take part in and shape sociopolitical discourse that was previously reserved only for those with power and privilege like mainstream media and political elites.

Although insufficient as a means for solutions and problem-solving without the logistical supports of on-the-ground coalition building, the Internet has been a tool for fundamental change.

When I think about Internet-driven activist movements like #MeToo, #ArabSpring, and directly connected to movements that began in Florida, #JusticeForTrayvon and #MarchForOurLives — the Internet is assuredly a tool for debate, collective organizing, and problem-solving; it's just that, like all technologies, there are negatives with the positives, and it takes a while before we know how to use them. 

Where do you see this ending? How do you see this ending? Will we ever return to a civil discourse where those who end up on the losing end of an argument, issue or election merely accept the results and move on? ​

Donald Trump's candidacy, presidency, and eventual transition from power were unique in our nation's history. Regardless of your political leanings, there was a proliferation of surface-level rhetoric and disinformation that damaged our polity.

Returning to civil discourse requires us all to take individual responsibility for how we use information. We must commit to preparation not just to winning arguments but to ideas and evidence that challenge our perspectives, and we must have the courage to hold our elected officials, each other, and ourselves accountable.

But we also need an appreciation for and honest patience with the information cycle. We are all human, and news that comes out first, even with the most diligent of effort to report a topic accurately, is not always the most reliable. Thorough research takes time, and as a society, we can reject the childish satisfaction of “gotcha” moments in favor of intellectual curiosity and growth.

Please share with us some highlights of your lecture. ​

As the title, "Just Words: Rhetorics of Embattlement and Activism" suggests, my workshop will focus on activist rhetorics, that is rhetoric that strategizes for sociopolitical change. In the first half of the day, we will look at the early origins of activist rhetorics and discuss definitions and analytical approaches. The second half of the workshop will be a guided opportunity for participants to share ideas and collaborate on how activist rhetorical expression and analysis can connect with their personal and professional interests. 

Sponsored by the UWF English department, Dr. Seahorn’s symposium will be from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday. Attendees may participate virtually or in person (UWF, Building 76A/101). For more information, register at the link below, or contact composition@uwf.edu. Register at https://bit.ly/3nN3XKX.