Re: Resistance and speaking out

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Sat Jan 29 2005 - 15:30:28 PST

Thanks to David, Mike, Peg and others for keeping this thread in our
attention. I'll also be happy when Diane rejoins our discussion.

I certainly agree with Mike that our local communities are the places to
begin, because we are more likely to be effective in them, and because they
also provide good practice for any wider efforts. But in doing so we may
have to face issues of our own identity and history, and of our personal
relationships with others, which can work to inhibit us as well as support us.

My recent intellectual fascination with this topic is very much around the
question of inhibition. Why is it so hard for so many of us to speak out in
our local communities and say what we really think, especially when what we
really think will be perceived as critical, negative, or (horror!)
ideological? Working on this question may help many of us come to feel
freer to act in the ways we really want to.

I smile at David's confidence in my rhetorical powers. I can be pretty good
sometimes, and there have been moments in my past when I was actually
astonished at how people reacted to my efforts to put passion into speech.
In part I think we just don't, especially in the academic world, very often
hear passion combined with effective argumentation and thoughtful ideas.
They're not supposed to go together, are they?

I also know that another component of my occasional effectiveness is my
willingness to transgress many other norms of academic speech. With humor,
irony, and even (dangerous) sarcasm. With more poetic turns of language
that are also not supposed to go with serious intellectual reflection. With
overtly rhetorical styles and cadences that were more common a century ago,
and can still be heard occasionally in the UK and are much more normal in
Spanish-speaking and some other cultures. (Yes, Hitler used them, too. They

You can't win by following rules created by your adversary. Most of the
discourse norms of our academic culture, formal and informal, tend, I
believe, to protect the status quo. That's how they evolved into being a
part of the status quo.

A key norm centers around truth. David mentions that progressive discourse
sounds uncertain compared to the simple, familiar certainties that support
dominant interests. That's very much because we're trained to hedge, to
match degree of certainty expressed to our level of awareness of complexity
and alternate possibility. If we ditch the complications, however, we run
the risk of becoming the simple-minded demagogues we detest.

An alternative is layering on complexity on a different timescale.
Certainty in every now, but not always the same certainty. Let the
complexity accumulate over different occasions. Build a discourse on the
social time-scale, not on the situational timescale. (When accused of the
dreaded "flip-flop", assert the perfect consistency of your positions, as
can be seen by anyone with common sense, and note a few specific examples
of the political opportunism of your inconsistent adversaries.)

One more point. Our sense of right. Not right and wrong, but the right to
say what is right. Today most of us are not from the ruling class, nor from
the corporate culture of arrogance (I'm rich, so I must always be right).
Some of us might approach the technocratic culture of arrogance (I know a
lot, so I must be right, e.g. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz), but I don't recommend
that path. We need to find within ourselves the voice of authority, the
voice that says I have a right to speak for humankind, to speak for
principles and values. I sometimes imagine that I must be descended from
some Old Testament prophet. I can feel what the Greeks called "thymos" ...
a righteous anger or higher obligation to speak out, something that sweeps
through me almost outside my control. Yes, it's a little frightening. But
it is also exhilarating. It is good for your soul to speak out for the
right, no holds barred.

But I don't do it very often. (I once scattered a crowd of religious right
hecklers at a gay pride event in New York by telling them, very loudly and
in full prophetic voice, just what God really thinks of their actions and
opinions.) This also points up that we all need to speak the language of
morality and human values more strongly against those who pervert moral
discourse for their own ends. Academics prefer to ground our rhetoric in
fact and reason. It's not enough. Whatever moral doubts you may have, they
are trivial compared to the gulf between any higher human values and their
power-lusting, greed-impelled hate-mongering. Evil is a powerful and
dangerous word. It needs to be used more often by people who actually know
what it means.


At 03:04 PM 1/29/2005, you wrote:

>Part of what we're about, as an academic community, is developing a
>counterhegemonic discourse with application to matters of social and
>educational practice. There are many such communities that participate
>together in an intellectual movement of resistance. Within our enclaves we
>are articulate and insightful. In the long run we do contribute ideas to
>the mainstream culture. But in my experience, when our discourse is
>juxtaposed directly with that of defenders of the status quo--who have the
>advantage of default interpretations and assumptions on their side--we end
>up sounding tentative, insecure, ideological, or apologetic. How often
>have I cringed at those horrid televised debates pitting advocates of the
>left and right against one another, at how ineffective is the progressive
>voice. In fact, there is only one scholar on the left that I've ever heard
>speak who has the passionate conviction, the depth of insight, the breadth
>of scholarship, the quickness of mind, and the gift for reconnecting
>complex issues back to basic progressive ideals, to be effective in such
>forums. And that person, dear Jay, is you. I don't mean to be off-loading
>my/our responsibility for public action on to someone else (in fact, to my
>surprise, I find myself having just completed a political piece for our
>student newspaper at LSU), but please do consider diverting part of your
>time and effort to this kind of public service.
>Sorry to say so publicly.

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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