Kroll, Barry M. — The Open Hand: Arguing as an Art of Peace

Kroll, Barry M.  The Open Hand: Arguing as an Art of Peace.  Logan: Utah State University Press, 2013.  Print.

Kroll explores “how arguing could be conducted with an open hand, as an art of peace,” with the “open hand not simply as a gesture of peaceful intent but also as an instrument of contact, an way to connect with an opposing force . . . receive aggressive energy and redirect it” (2).  Kroll’s approach emphasizes the incorporation of meditation and mindfulness exercises “as practical arts that enhanced one’s effectiveness in the world, especially in difficult conversations, interpersonal disputes, and arguments about divisive issues” (13), and it uses the martial art of aikido as a extended metaphor and physical analog for the open hand “moves” one can make in arguing for peace.  He devotes the book to discussions of three alternatives to adversarial arguing — reframing, attentive listening, and mediating.

In reframing, two-sided debates are “reframed as a careful analysis of the situation, with an assessment of options for addressing a significant problem” (16).  To reframe arguments, writers can A) “shift attention from points of contention to larger issues,” to the questions or situation that generated the argument in the first place (32); B) “expand the options being considered, slowing down the rush to decide on a course of action”; and/or C) “introduce new perspectives that encourage participants to step back” and consider “creative solutions  . . . [or] fresh way to understand the problem” (33).  Later, Kroll refers to these various tactics of reframing as “searching for better problems” (57).  In the second approach, which Kroll describes as “conciliatory,” you move opponents to listen to your views by first hearing theirs, by “demonstrating that you have paid attention, achieved a measure of understanding, and sympathized with their concerns and perhaps some of their ideas” (17).  One way to “demonstrate fair-minded, nonoppositional listening,” he says, is to use a “say-back protocol” (71), and the goal in this approach is “reciprocity: the statement of one’s own position should be . . . more or less the same length and equally clear and even handed, aimed at mutual understanding rather than persuasion” (81).  In the third approach, writers seeks “to find a way to induce cooperation between adversaries, mediating a dispute so that it becomes (so fas as possible) a productive encounter” (17), “encouraging adversaries to cooperate on the basis of shared interests or goals” (89).  According to Kroll, good mediators “look beyond the positions that have shaped the argument and led to an impasse, devling into the unexpressed or tacit interests, values, needs, and goals,” which requires “both investigation and sympathetic identification with each party’s concerns” (96): “beneath people’s claims and arguments lay deeper constellations of values and commitments, some at the root of the dispute, some that were shared” (99).  Mediators can guide disputants toward “agreements of different strengths, such as agreements on procedure, agreements that are provisional or partial, and second-order agreements (agreeing about where you disagree)” (101).

Kroll asks students to “become observers of the dynamics of everyday arguments,” to pay attention to the conflicts taking place among parents, friends, romantic partners, roommates, etc., to their own habits of arguing, and to record their observations and reflections as weekly journal entries (31): “nearly all of the students agreed that prior experiences — personal interactions, obeservations of debates in the media, and their training in high school — had encouraged arguing with a closed fist.  What they needed, to expand their repertoire, was a sense of the alternatives” (32).  He asserts that “most people who are involved in divisive disputes see no alternative to the familiar strategies of attack and defense, striving to maximize advantage even if they aren’t getting anywhere.  This is as true of interpersonal disputes as it is of both professional conflicts and public controversies” (92-93).  Kroll is careful to note that “Conventional–even confrontational–argument has a place in one’s repertoire because there are occasions for principled advocacy, responsible assertion, spirited defense, and strenuous opposition.  But these are not the only or always the best ways to argue with adversaries” (125).  The goal, then,  he says, “is to expand the rhetorical repertoire in order to give writers options and choices” (123), “to enable them to make choices about how to proceed when they are engaged in argumentative conflicts” (124).

Kroll’s book was published by a prominent university press in 2013, which suggests the timing is good for additional work on the intersections of peace studies and writing studies.  The three approaches it explicates are concrete, pragmatic, and seemingly very useful ways of reconfiguring argument so that progress on the issues and the relationships of the disputants might become possible.  Kroll offers a ready-to-go pedagogy for teaching writing as nonviolence, although his “conciliatory approach” strikes me as little more than the standard, ethical injunction to not set up straw dogs as you argue.  We have always urged students to summarize the con arguments “in a way that demonstrates fair-minded ‘listening’ [to] the opponent’s interests, concerns, and positon on the issue.”  The only difference I can see is that Kroll suggests that the final section of a conciliatory argument does not urge the opposition to change views.

I leave the book, though, with a number of questions about underexamined terms and concepts.  For instance, Kroll suggests that “By taking controversial topics and reframing them as opportunities for deliberative discussion, rather than defaulting to pro/con debate, these . . .  students were expanding their options for arguing about disputed issues” (55).  But what does discussion (let alone deliberative discussion) mean?  How do we do it?  How, exactly, does it differ from debate?  And how might we teach it?  In like manner, Kroll writes of “a process that will require more dialogue than argumentation” (99).  But what is dialogue?  What is involved in doing dialogue?  What is the dialogue process and how might we teach it?  How is dialogue different from debate or, more importantly, from discussion?  Similarly, much of Kroll’s approach relies on the idea of attentive listening: “attentive listening, a kind of listening that goes beyond hearing but stops short of agreeing” (84).  But how do we do that?  What is the “listening process”?  And how can we teach that?  And how can we render or demonstrate or prove that attentive listening has actually happened?  And finally, the whole image of finding common ground comes up: “I wanted students to consider how to proceed when the opponents in a debate were not able to find any common ground” (97), to help them in “identifying common ground in or around the topic, locating issues on which adversaries can cooperate–despite fundamental differences” (105).  The entire concept/metaphor/goal of “common ground” seems in need of serious critique.  To begin with, it is a territorial metaphor and thus seems doomed to fail because it reinvokes the whole metaphor of argument-as-war.  Moreover, reminiscent of Trimbur’s critique of “consensus,” the goal of seeking some kind of “common ground” defaults to searching for some lowest common denominator, some path of least resistance, which truncates any effort to consider more complex or sophisticated approaches and likewise refuses to acknowledge the value of dissensus and conflict.  The suggestion to use “a middle-ground approach” (105) or of “finding a middle way between extremes” (106) seems to only exacerbate these issues.

One aspect of writing and nonviolence that I will need to develop is the how the genre of the exploratory essay (as I have developed it elsewhere) would seem to be a strong vehicle for nonviolent writing.  Throughout Kroll’s text, I hear him describe features of “arguing for peace” that I have previously ascribed to the essay:

  •      in reframing — “perhaps the key shift is from assertion to question, from claim to query, from declarative to interrogative mode.  A question invites answers rather than counterarguments” (33)
  •      in reframing, “a writer should examine multiple approaches to a problem rather than two competing proposals” (37)
  •      “instead of narrowing focus and reducing complexity, we broaden the context and make the problem more complicated . . . [and thus consider] the conditions that led to the problematic situation in the first place” (45)
  •      “a special form of intergrative thinking, one in which elements of opposite views are merged in a position that embraces contradictions and accepts tensions, letting them stand rather than trying to resolve them” (106).

Each of these are qualities that I have explicated and discussed as features of the exploratory essay in previous scholarship.

Similarly, there are clearly connections between Rosenberg’s and Kroll’s ideas about nonviolent communication.  Rosenberg’s NVC explictly seeks to uncover the unmet needs that are not being effectively expressed in situations of conflict.  Kroll, too, says that good mediators look beyond positions taken to consider “the unexpressed or tacit interests, values, needs, and goals” (96), asserting that “beneath people’s claims and arguments lay deeper constellations of values and commitments, some at the root of the dispute, some that were shared” (99).

— Paul Heilker


Comments Off

Filed under Uncategorized