A response to recent columns The Daily Mississippian by professors of writing and rhetoric at the University of Mississippi.
Words have power.
As teachers of rhetoric, we understand that writing functions ultimately as conversation. We support the idea that, “If you have something to say, make sure it is logical, well-supported, and fair.”
Between students, faculty, and staff, there are over 35,000 voices that comprise the University of Mississippi. Our development as an institution of higher learning depends on the interconnected nature of multiple truths, not the denigration of human beings whose truths don’t match our own.
As such, we believe in the importance of listening to and understanding our audience. In his recent column, “Ole Miss Has Become the University of Nowhere,” when Andrew Soper uses terms such as “we,” “us,” and “our,” he disregards the complexity of speaking on behalf of a broad university community and identifies differing viewpoints as destructive to Ole Miss. When Soper refers to supporters of the removal of the state flag as “hateful agitators” and “red-in-the-face race baiters,” he ignores the truth—that our own Associated Student Body, Faculty Senate, Staff Council, and Graduate Student Council voted with overwhelming majorities to remove the state flag from campus. Soper’s ad hominem fallacy (which is essentially name-calling) disregards the many members of our university who love and care for it and work tirelessly to uphold a central value of its creed—the belief in respecting the dignity of each person.
Next, we turn to the need for factual research used in logical ways.
In his recent column “Kaepernick’s ‘Sit-Down’ During National Anthem is Wrong,” Michael Lanagan misrepresents factual evidence to imply that Kaepernick’s stance against institutionalized racism in the United States is unfounded. When he writes, “African-Americans are shot and killed by police less often than whites and Hispanics,” Lanagan obscures the data—The Washington Post recently noted that African Americans “account for 24 percent of those fatally shot and killed by the police despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population…[which] means black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.” When writers misrepresent research as Lanagan does, they lose the ethos needed to be taken seriously by a broader audience.
Finally, we urge our students to remember that the styles we use cannot be separated from the content that we convey. The study of rhetoric teaches us that our sentences’ style and syntax create and reinforce their meaning. To change one changes the other, so we should choose our words with care and precision.
So where do we go from here?
A former dean of students, Dr. Thomas J. “Sparky” Reardon, said that college is often where the person you are today meets the person you will be in the future. As instructors of rhetoric, we have the pleasure of starting that introduction for many of our students in their first-year of college. We do this with the understanding that all students have unique perspectives and experiences worth sharing, which means they also have a responsibility to exercise constructive ways of participating in the rhetorical situation of the day.
The careful and thoughtful use of rhetoric is one way to move the conversation forward.