Occasion: Our contemporary culture political discourse
Relation to my Thesis: Less of a stretch than it may seem
Request: Not to respond to the politics of the people featured here because that would be both totally besides the point and more than a little ironic
I’m not sure about the legality of doing this, but I’m going to lift excerpts from a Facebook argument between someone I went to high school with and one of our teachers. In using this example, I don’t mean to suggest that the arguments taking place in Facebook comments represent the height of our political conversation –pretty much all political exchanges on social media are entirely pointless glorified shouting matches (I only know about this particular example because my friends from high school were making fun of it in a group chat) — but they do represent the average political conversation. More than anything, it’s just an easy example to use and it conveniently demonstrates the more universal points I need to make.
The conversation started when the person I went to school with, let’s call him (she’s actually a “she,” but I’m pretty attached to the pseudonym) Louis Guzman, made a post about the New York terror attack and “open borders” or whatever the fuck. This wasn’t the first time Mr. Guzman had seen it fitting to espouse his beliefs on the social media platform and so very loudly voiced ideological sympathies had been well known to all his Facebook friends for quite some time. Apparently, this latest post so “disheartened” (her words) a former teacher of ours, who we’ll call Liza Minnelli, that she saw it fit to respond to her one-time student, writing a long comment which included the following,
“Since Trump has been in office there have been more deaths due to acts of terror committed by white American men with no ties to Islam than by Muslim extremists. Of course ISIS inspired attacks are terrifying and need to be taken seriously and prevented, but completely shutting down borders or banning people based on their religion is not only unacceptable, its also not a solution. Primarily, because we would still suffer from regular acts of domestic terrorism by white American men, but also because we live in a global world. The NYC attacker was not radicalized until long after he had been in the US and he planned his attack information he got from ISIS online while in America” [sic]
and was capped off with a link to a Vox article in support of her first statement.
Mr. Guzman, not one to be uprooted in his own terrain, responded to Mrs. Minnelli with a comment that featured the following selection of prose,
“However having open borders and lottery visas today without proper vetting can only lead to more attacks that kill not only innocent Americans but innocent humans. It’s not rocket science why Poland and Hungary, European countries with the strongest border control (I believe Hungary even put up a wall) are the SAFEST.. and countries with open borders are suffering the consequences, and even now making their laws stricter. The radical Muslim mantra is to kill any and all in their way. It is preached and imbedded from a young age” [sic — to like the entire quote].
This exchange is so typical as to be almost unsubstantial to the uninvolved reader. To my friends and I, it was worthwhile only as a case study in the political interaction of our peers and I mean to analyse it in a similar regard here. Because, the fact that this sort of thing — people foisting their opinions on one another from across generational, social, and (of course) ideological divides — is so typical is exactly what’s worth noting about it. A sort of conversational complacency has taken place, where the means by which to change the minds of others have become so close at hand that we’ve forgotten why we use them in the first place.
My thesis is about the use of citations in literary criticism and using them to examine the notion that we understand the papers and arguments we read. Part of what really stuck out to me about that topic is the appeal to authority that’s evident in the use of citation. There’s a similar effect at play in the kinds of conversations I’m discussing now, but instead of acting to aid in the argument being made, it generally only functions in those readers who have already accepted the arguments conclusion.
In the example of discourse I’ve referenced, there is one genuine use of citation, but much more prevalent in both posts are what I’ll call “cultural citations.” To demonstrate, I’ll pull out the claims in both Mr. Guzman’s and Mrs. Minnelli’s quoted work,
1: but completely shutting down borders or banning people based on their religion is not only unacceptable …
2: .. it[‘]s also not a solution
3: Primarily, because we would still suffer from regular acts of domestic terrorism by white American men …
4: … but also because we live in a global world. The NYC attacker was not radicalized until long after he had been in the US and he planned his attack information he got from ISIS online while in America
5: having open borders and lottery visas today without proper vetting can only lead to more attacks that kill not only innocent Americans but innocent humans.
6: Poland and Hungary, European countries with the strongest border control …
7: … I believe Hungary even put up a wall …
8: … are the SAFEST …
9: … and even now making their laws stricter
10: The radical Muslim mantra is to kill any and all in their way.
11: It is preached and [e]mbedded from a young age
While at a glance it may appear that the arguments being made are just assemblages of sentiments, they both feature a great deal of claims with seemingly no support. Here is where the “cultural citations” tie in. Each of those claims is tethered to some Vox or Breitbart article that the authors read at some point in the past and the information gathered therein lodged in their brains as a ‘fact’ (this claim — the one that I just made — functions in the same way. I’m making it based on my own experience doing the same damn thing and then halfheartedly condemning myself for doing so and ascribing the practice to people engaging in hastily-made arguments, assuming that you’ll have done the same and so identify the claim as being universally true).
However, when you do this, there’s a high chance that anyone who identifies your claim as a fact already agrees with your conclusion because they’ve frequented the same sources as you and so likely share your specific political stance.
Furthermore, since someone who doesn’t agree with you will be dubious of your sources, they’ll likely dismiss any claims they don’t identify as being grounded in “proof” and if they do know the source you’re assuming is understood, they’ll likely dismiss it as disreputable (ex: I know exactly what Liza is talking about in all her claims because I’ve made those arguments before, while I have no clue whether or not Hungary “built a wall” because that’s never been a talking point in my circle).
Normally, citations are an author’s way of saying, “you can look this up if you really want to, but trust me, I did my research,” while in the case of “cultural citations,” the author is appealing to some piece of rhetoric they believe their “side” of the debate has already shown to be true — they’re appealing to the authority of arguments they see themselves as already having won.
Just think about how ludicrously pointless that is. In both of the comments quoted above, the author is arguing that they’re right because their claims are all correct.
I bring up “cultural citations” not only to try to improve the ways in which we engage in political discourse, but to examine literary citations via the example. Normally, citations are universally understood to accurately reflect knowledge before being convinced of the argument’s conclusion, but with inherently ‘understood’ “cultural citations,” anyone unconvinced of the argument will immediately dismiss the claims being made due to an ignorance of and/or distrust in their sources. That just leads me to wonder what the experience of reading a piece of literary criticism would be like if I distrusted every citation.
And then I can segue into an example of exactly that.