Personal Commentary: On the 2016 US Presidential Election

Thirteen days after the announcement of the 2016 election results, it’s very clear that the United States has entered into a new paradigm. While racism, sexism, etc. has always been an issue in this country, the prevailing political rhetoric seems to have now normalized open, public discrimination and derogatory speech. As a citizen, this has been disheartening and frightening to watch unfold. As an educator and rhetorician, it’s been fascinating.

Never has there been a more poignant time (at least, not since the 1940s) where the need to teach civics and rhetoric in the public sphere, including public and private classrooms, has been so salient. (I say ‘civics and rhetoric’ because, in my thinking, both imply critical thinking as well.) This is not to say that I do not honor the election results, as hard as that is to acknowledge. (It is hard to know that the popular vote was so strongly in the other direction.) Rather, that it is dismaying at how such a large populace of voters could be easily swayed by the rhetoric of a politician that, depending on the day and hour, contradicted himself regularly – sometimes within the same sentence. That the majority could not, or did not, or chose not to see through this tells us a lot about both the prevailing ideology in the US, as well as the state of our educational system. We are clearly not teaching people to weigh both sides of an argument (regardless of where they fall ideologically) or to pay attention to rhetoric – or even to recognize the rhetoric. And we clearly have a long way to go with respecting difference. These claims are not because of the tally results, but because of the justifications for why individuals chose who they chose.

As the President-Elect selects his cabinet members, the implications of this grows more and more worrisome. The appointment of white supremacists to positions of power, as well as a Vice-President-Elect who supports conversion therapy for LGBTQs, is concerning for those of us in equity and activist work. We are also now seeing the rise of websites such as ProfessorWatchList, asking students and parents to help “identify, and expose more professors who have demonstrated liberal bias in the classroom.” Leaving aside the fact that they are literally saying they want to out professors who teach students to be open to new behavior and hearing new opinions (in other words, professors who do not promote bigotry), the creation of such sites is a bit too reminiscent of McCarthyism and the current events in Turkey to be easily dismissible.

The upside of these recent events, though, are the number of individuals rallying to exercise their civic duty through public discourse and political action. While protests are on the up-rise, so also are individuals making telephone calls and holding individuals in power accountable for their actions. Whether it is making a college or university campus a sanctuary, calling on state representatives to denounce cabinet appointments, or taking a stand against bigotry and hatred at the holiday dinner table, many who have been previously quiet seem to have found their voice. There is hope in that.

Where the country goes from here is anybody’s guess, and I’m not sure that I have much to offer other than for those of us in rhetoric, communication, and composition studies to keep teaching our students to think and speak for themselves, with the hope that it will make a difference over time. In the end, if all we do is bear witness to what we see and hear, that is still something. Still, it seems that this paradigm is ripe for rhetoric and civics to find their way back into mainstream education. The question I ponder now is: How do we do this in what appears to be the start of an age of suppression?

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