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Shared Reading: Reactionary Rhetoric

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: August 24, 2004
Latest Update: August 21, 2005

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Index of Topics on Site Reactionary Rhetoric

  1. Introduction Why I chose to share this reading.
  2. Focus: Main point of this reading.
  3. Reading Full identification of source for reading AND excerpt.
  4. Concepts: Concepts and Key Words.
  5. Discussion Discussion questions.
  6. Conceptual Linking to Substantive Courses What this has to do with our class.

* * *


  • I wanted to share this reading with you to make you aware of how many of our discussions fail to result in either illocutionary or real instrumental discourse. Mostly we just shout at each other when we disagree.


  • I would like you to come away from this reading with a sense of how we disagree without listening in good faith to the validity claim of the Other. How do we manage to not hear, and still make what looks like a conversation?

Concepts and Key Words:

  • perversity thesis: "According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy." Hirschman, at p. 7.

  • futility thesis: "The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to "make a dent." Hirschman, at p. 7.

  • jeopardy thesis: "[T]he jeopardy thesis argue that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment." Hirschman, at p. 7.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Compare Hirschman's theory to Piaget's concept of parallel egocentric conversations with children.

    Hirschman says that we react in the sense of one-sided arguments, that is we wave flags, put up protest signs, dismiss differences with snide remarks, and rely pretty much on sound bites. Basically he is saying that we aren't bothering to listen in good faith to each others' validity claims. Listening in good-faith would involve going into two-sided or mulitple-sided arguments where we had to let go of the pateriotism, flag-waving, cheer-leading, and appeal as best we can to illocutionary and reasoned argument.

    Jean Piaget described all this a long time ago in his Language and Thought of the Child. He said that sometimes children carry on conversations in which neither one is listening to the other, each is talking primarily to himself/herself, and no real exchange of information is taking place. Piaget called these egocentric parallel conversations. Listen. You'll hear some regularly in the workplace, at home, and in school.

  2. Consider the argument Hirschman makes out the Reactionary Theses and one-sided arguments vs. two-sided arguments in attitude and persuasion theory.

    Hirschman's reactionary theses relate to one-sided and two-sided arguments, in that as long as we stay at the superficial level of catch phrases, dominant discourse appeals, and such phrases as are meant to gather our supporters around us cheering, like Hirschman's theses, we remain on one-sided arguments, meaning that no one is seriously considering the deeper, more complex issues of any of the arguments. Problem is that two-sided arguments are more complex, require more concentration and effort to understand, and so appeal less to those who want a quick-fix answer.

    This relates to prejudice and discrimination in the sense that prejudice and discrimination are learned ideological responses that function best in the one-sided appeal to icons and imagery and bands and crowds and excitement, not to governance and illocutionary discourse. When the Nazis asked to march in Skogee, Illinois, and the Supreme Court said they could, one of the problems is that the Nazis were parading swazitkas, marching bodies with rhythm and energy, music, entertainment, albeit of a political nature. The elderly survivors of the concentration camps were hard-pressed to combat those one-sided arguments with the far more sedate two-sided arguments of their terror at seeing a even such a mild replication of what thay had survuved.That kind of marching scares me, nevermind, people that have actually endured it up close and personal.

  3. How does the theoretical precaution, "What we think changes how we act" fit into reasoned discourse? (Theory Toolbox, at pp. 1-2.)

    All that we think has a perspective, for language already has that perspective. Sometimes even icons of former events, like the distinctive German marching and swaztikas, change how we react, how we feel.

  4. How dos the Kerry/Bush argument over Kerry's Vietnam career illustrate the Rhetoric of Reaction?

    Consider what rhetoric is being used in place of evidence, facts, and reason. What theses can you detect in what language?

  5. Here is what one official working for an outsourcing company says: "He makes the standard argument in favor of outsourcing, one endorsed by many economists:
    "If you put up barriers to save jobs, the exact opposite will happen. As companies get less profitable, more Americans will lose jobs." From Outsourcing Backup Scroll about half way down the file for the quote.

Which of Hirschman's Reactionary Theses do you see in this statement? What would that suggest to you?

I see the perversity thesis, do you? Since the gentleman works for the outsourcing company, would you want to take a closer look at the good faith examination of his conclusions?

Conceptual Linking to Substantive Courses:

  • Agencies:
    Sample linking: If an agency personnel member is not fully up to date on outsourcing, how might that affect their reaction to your loss of a job through outsourcing? What does this tell us about the necessity for up to date training in agencies?

  • Criminal Justice:
    Sample linking: How is outsourcing likely to affect who falls between the cracks in the criminal justice system? Consider that white-collar jobs are now being lost, at increasing rates.

  • Law:
    Sample linking: How is the law hampered in any attempt to protect white collar workers, college educated, from job loss to India and China?

  • Moot Court:
    Sample linking: How do we get past reactionary theses to illocutionary and governance discourse?

  • Women in Poverty:
    Sample linking: As the middle class begins to suffer similar job loss as the lower working class has in the past, where are sympathies likely to fall in the dominant discourse? Consider that dominant discourse is relatively middle class, the broadest range of middle class we could imagine, and that we tend to empathize most with those we perceive to be like us. If that's true, or if sympathies go as I suggest, what is that likely mean to those already suffering poverty?

  • Race, Gender, Class:
    Sample linking: Richard Hovard used to say "When the hay gets low, the horses bite each other." Awful expression. But as jobs continue to disappear overseas, even college jobs, what about the probability of racial, gender, and class antagonism in an increasingly depressed market?

  • Religion:
    Sample linking: And now to faith-based safety-nets. If the economic and political policies of the U.S. have led, or are leading, to a critical shortage of jobs, how appropriate is it for the government to turn its responsibility and complicity in that situation over to the churches, temples, mosques? Is there a responsibility for the religous person who see something wrong morally and ethnically with the infrastructure to speak out? Is silence complicit?

  • Love !A:
    Sample linking: Aside from icky-poo sweet "I just love everybody," what are the real demands on those of us who believe in loving one another? Consider the problem with trying to save the world with your two feet planted on local ground. Not likely. Does that mean you have no responsibility?

    Consider that a young woman once confessed to me that she was avoiding a young child because she knew how much the child needed someone to listen, to hear, and she feared that she couldn't give that much. That is a reasonable and sensible response. But the young woman felt guilty because she preferred reaching out, loving. There is a logical error buried deep in here: the unstated assumption that the young woman who's feeling guilty is somehow responsible for her smile, for her supportive answer, for her offer of help. If we all felt that way, we would hoard our smiles and our help zealously. And the world would be a much less loving place. If you are afraid that someone will easily become dependent, don't offer a ride, or help with homework, or whatever you are afraid of with that person. But do offer a smile and kind words, and encouragement. Don't be afraid to be there one day, and not be available the next. That's life in the fast lane. None of us have the time to be there all the time for most people; but every time we are there, we add a little happiness to that life. And if many of us are there with smiles and kind words, and help when we are comfortable with it, the combined effect of all our efforts will make this a much happier world.

    But then I hear my mother on my shoulder, "But what if we lose all our jobs and pensions, jean rae? Smiles won't help that." Leave it to my mother to remind me I have to go out there and change things, go out there and vote, and then SMILE. jeanne

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