Lamb, Catherine E. — Beyond Argument in Feminist Composition

Lamb, Catherine E.  “Beyond Argument in Feminist Composition.”  College Composition and Communication 42.1 (1991): 11-24.  Print.

“As a culture, we learn much more about how to repress or ignore conflict than how to live with and transform it,” Lamb writes.  “When we practice monologic argument as an end, we are teaching students that conflict can be removed by an effort that is fundamentally one-sided” (18).   She asserts, however, that “a resolution of conflict that is fair to both sides [. . .] is possible even in the apparent one-sidedness of written communication” (11).  First she notes the ubiquity of monological argument, “the way most (all?) of us were taught to conceptualize arguments: what we want comes first, and we use the available means of persuasion to get it, in, one hopes, ethical ways.  We may acknowledge the other side’s position but only to refute it [. . .] We have uncritically assumed there was no other way to write” (13).  Lamb then suggests that “empathy, the ability to think or feel as the other,” is essential in conflict resolution.  But in connecting with the other, she writes, “it is critical that one already has and retains a sense of one’s self.  The process requires, ultimately, more recognition and honoring of difference than it does searching for common ground” (16).  Thus, we still need argument “at the early stages of resolving a conflict, where both parties need to be as clear as possible about what they think and feel.”

The “alternative to the self-assertiveness of monologic argument is not self-denial,” Lamb contends, but the cultivation of a “sense of spaciousness” (17): a “paradoxical situation where the distance between the writer and audience is lessened (as they explore the dimensions of the conflict together) while the ‘space’ in which they are operating has enlarged because they see more possibilities” (18).  According to Lamb, in both negotiation and mediation “the goal has changed: it is no longer to win but to arrive at a solution in a just way that is acceptable to both sides” (18).  It is important to note that negotiation and mediation are “structured forms of conflict resolution,” she says.  The “guidelines which provide the structure are the mechanism whereby space between the two parties can be increased, making it possible for the distance between them to be lessened as they move toward each other” (19).  Finally, Lamb offers a précis of the pedagogy she uses in advanced writing courses to teach students how to negotiate and mediate.

The goal of nonviolence is not to eliminate or repress conflict, although I think that this is likely a common misconception.  Rather the goal of nonviolence is to help us learn to engage in conflict in healthy ways, ways that bring us together rather than force us apart, ways that are collaborative rather than one-sided, ways that are mutually beneficial rather than primarily self-interested.  I am intrigued, then, by the spatial metaphor that Lamb invokes, the idea that we can lessen the distance and move closer to those we disagree with by creating more (lateral) space in which to move.  How might these larger space actually be created?  How, exactly, do negotiation and mediation structure these spaces?  How might other alternatives to argument structure these spaces?  What kinds of new “moves” might we make in these new spaces that would allow us to move closer to those we are in conflict with?  In like manner, I appreciate the developmental model she suggests, where monological discourse (like argument) is a critical and necessary precursor to successful negotiation and mediation.  But some thorny questions emerge pretty quickly as well.  For instance, what written discourse forms might allow us to actually embody/enact/conduct negotiation or mediation, rather then merely document the antecedent verbal processes of it, especially given “the apparent one-sidedness of written communication”?  In like manner, certain terms emerge here that are going to need considerable scrutiny to be useful and not obfuscatory.  What, exactly, does “empathy” mean?  How does it operate?  Any effort on my part to teach nonviolence is going to need a well-articulated, elaborated theory of empathy.  [I am reminded here of Yergeau’s discussion of how neurotypicals arrogantly think autistics cannot empathize with them but that they can somehow empathize with autistics.]  In like manner, the ubiquitous invocation of “finding common ground” makes me nervous, too, and needs a thorough explication.  Every time it pops up I hear Trimbur’s old critique about the tyranny of consensus in my head, of how efforts to find common ground can default to lowest common denominators and thus prevent any productive uses of dissensus.

— Paul Heilker

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