“empirically fat”

What a class we had last night! After a deliberative first half (“the best discussion” Bryan said he’s “ever had” in one of Stephen’s classes, grin), and a raucous second half, Stephen debated Viveca on the morality of Michael Moore’s filmmaking. He had been searching for an area of genuine disagreement that we could use to illustrate the prescriptive methodology in Gutman and Thomas’ form of deliberative democracy. It was tough (as the topic indicates) among our (apparently) fairly homogenous “leftist” group, which I think indicates less our lack of disagreement on important issues and more the intensity of taboo and risk-taking involved in airing genuine disagreements.
Scott must have zoned out because he asked at one point, “Is this for real?” 🙂 Stephen


(who does dislike Moore’s work) managed to perform a compelling moral critique for taking the higher ground rather than stooping to the manipulative techniques of “the enemy” and Viveca softened her position, although didn’t abdicate completely. However, as a couple of folk mentioned – no DECISION was made, only (perhaps) an increase in understanding and respect for the morality of the other side. (Viveca’s comeback was powerful too, that sacrificing starving children now in hopes of achieving a more just society later justified using the tools at hand.)
I discovered that I’ve got some work to do at maintaining focus on the moral dimension of an argument ~ which G&T maintain is at the core of disagreement and hence, will persist. (Hence Stephen’s example that he didn’t like Moore because “he’s fat and I used to be so I don’t like fat people.” Which was further clarified as “empirical” rather than “opinion.” Which was a further illustrationg of what would constitute a “fair” question within the confines of G&T’s mode.) I *think* we agreed with the premise of persistent differences in morality, but decided G&T’s prescription “looked good on paper” but didn’t seem practicable in the real world. Certainly not as a communicative form that would apply to any situation regardless of context.
I was fascinated by the flow of our discussion though, because there was such a distinct difference before and after break. I wonder if it has something to do with Leda’s presence? And I don’t mean this as an adverse effect of her being there, but as a dialectic between her sensitivity of not wanting to step on/into Stephen’s “territory” and both students’ and Stephen’s reactions (uncertainty?) to her presence and the “vibe” (if I can call it that) of her caution and concern.
It’s pure speculation, of course, but the fact that “we reproduced the form we were discussing” in the first half of the class, and shifted into a much more chaotic form in the second half, indicates that something changed. It could also have been the topic ~ we may in fact have had some “real” disagreement about Fish ~ or it appeared that we did, as Bryan and I engaged with what we found potentially appealing in his view and Viveca (in particular) was focused on all its faults.
Can I just say I am So Happy that Viveca is in this class! 🙂 I was really helped by her focus on “nailing down the argument” that G&T were making, and also her questioning of where the heck Fish was coming from in his attempt to put boundaries on the political. (And what a sigh of relief I breathed when I was confirmed in my guess that Fish is a proceduralist, not a constitionalist!) The English folk are also quite an addition, because their input comes from a different (if overlapping?) frame. While I’m on this tack, I sure hope Camille will keep popping in. 🙂 And Donna, all us Gentiles did notice your absence. 🙁 Hope your observance is going well.
I feel that I really learned some tangible things, and that’s gratifying. Some distinctions are becoming clear, and I’m thrilled with the easy familiarity of this group, carrying on more-or-less intact from last semester. I got the sense that we enacted a kind of everyday performativity together – we were ourselves in full, not just performing our academic selves. The best example? Someone (who’s anonymity I will protect!) exclaimed, after we’d essentially dismissed G&T’s form of deliberative democracy, “Maybe I don’t believe in democracy!” 🙂 An intellectually unguarded (?) moment ~ but what I would suggest (!) does enact the (or at least “a”) form of communication that CAN lead to real democracy. It was a statement of the current thought process which embodied the viscera of the struggle itself. At its core, “real” democracy means (to me!) not only that we “find ways to get along without killing each other” (Stephen’s reprise of Kenneth Burke) but ALSO that, “in that “getting along”, we are fully present. Hmmm. How does the aspiration for everyone to operate, or at least have the opportunity/choice to operate, at their full capacities fit into notions of democracy?

18 thoughts on ““empirically fat””

  1. Steph,
    I just wanted to clarify. I thought that being fat was framed as an opinion and being manipulative was framed as a moral argument. In this case, it might be difficult to argue the opposite but I question if those boundaries are so easily demarcated.
    On a different note, Stephen mentioned a second critique of deliberative democracy that we didn’t have time to discuss and that was the dd can be elitist. Since I brought up Town Meeting last night (which I am a supporter of), I do feel (morally?) obligated to say that one of the critiques of Amherst town meeting is that only a small percentage of people end up participating and many working families don’t have time to participate. But I seriously question that argument on a few different levels that I will write in about later.

  2. last night, i had questions about whether the deliber idea was only on paper, not in practice…not sure if you all were speaking about THEIR procedure in particular,or any work on deliberation. i seemed to remember plenty of empirical/programmatic work on deliberation (with humans) from studyng with john gastil at the univ of washington. i kept quiet about this because i couldn’t remember names… but just checked and remember mostly the work done by The Kettering Foundation http://www.kettering.org/index.html
    Their buds Max McCombs and Amy Reynolds did the National Issues Conventions, bringing people together for discussion of voting issues during a presidential campaign, then doing a poll AFTER the deliberation.
    On the site you’ll find
    this book: Creating Citizens through Public Deliberation (2004)
    These case studies describe how nongovernmental organizations in 10 countries are using public deliberation to help citizens think of themselves as political actors who can change the course of their communities.
    Other colleagues of theirs are David Schoem and sylvia Hurtado, who do delib stuff in schools and communities
    And then of course there are all the folks in the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation
    http://www.thataway.org
    I can’t say report that it’s perfect or that it works, but just have heard about the work being done.

  3. Camille, you’re right – fatness can supposedly be empirically verified but not liking someone on that basis is an opinion, not a point of moral dispute (although that could shift in a different context, couldn’t it?)

  4. Regarding empirical fatness, there are so many spaces where body, history, science and culture collide–since i didn’t take part in that discussion I’ll refrain from further comment due to lack of empirical experience.
    Although. . . I have a bootleg of Fahrenheit 9/11 if anyone’s interested in further discussion(not mine though, I’ve “borrowed” it for awhile).
    What is interesting to me is how so much of the reading (which i did not do) parallels my background in conflict/ mediation stuff. Although the focus was always on deliberative and procedural “justice” rather than democracy.
    Re: my presence. i suppose the obligation now is to “voice”. Or does silence speak in democracy?
    Leda

  5. I have to disagree that Stephen put forth a powerful argument or critique against Moore’s film and/or if he used Gutmann & Thompson’s model correctly, then maybe I am just agreeing with the class that the model is weak.
    I read a critique of Moore’s film that I thought was quite worthy of reading this summer on the anthro list-srv. I forget the author’s name and I really wanted to get it before spouting off about it b/c its been quite awhile now since I read it –I think the article was ‘Why MM’s film isn’t a left film.” If I recall correctly, the points that I agree with the author were mainly around its racist bias (negative portrayals of other countries, focus on white groups and people, assumption that audience is white). Jose told me that Henry might have a copy so I will try and get one.
    They also critiqued Moore for lambasting Bush with barely a critique of the Democratic party. While I share their view of the Dem party (or at least the ones that are in control of it), I think that Moore is clear about his position in the film and presents an emotional, one-sided film. I’m OK with that. Is he trying to make people believe his version of history/politics? Yes. Don’t most of us when we tell a story? I guess this is the part of Stephen’s argument that I don’t understand. Funny, because I agree with him that there is no Truth (though I believe in more socially just truths/versions.) But I’m confused how we would persuade or transform opinion for more just futures without trying to present a powerful story. The media is not a hypodermic needle and many stories are circulating; I don’t think we have to demean movie goers by accusing them of not being aware of this or being so easily manipulated. (Don’t forget that it wasn’t MM’s doing that got it the coverage that it did rather Miramax’s attempted suppression.) Maybe media effects scholars will take me to task on this and I’m willing and feel morally obligated to listen!
    Secondly, Stephen’s claim (moral argument) that the woman/mother who was pissed off and emotionally destroyed in the film was exploited is even more confusing to me. Why is emotional outrage dismissed so easily? Why is she positioned by Stephen as a victim? Why should she just be

  6. By the way, Its not that I think being fat and or not liking fat people can be empirically proved its that I thought that the entire line fat/not liking was ruled out in G & T;s model and being manipulative is instead the “correct format” for arguing.
    Camille

  7. “Empirically fat” was a joke, of course, but one meant to show the kind of opinions that are NOT deliberative arguments. G&T, like most deliberative democrats, make no room for ad hominem attacks. So in saying in, I expected it to be thrown out by a healthy deliberative system.
    The MORAL argument I made against Moore is that his propagandistic style lowers us to the likes of Karl Rove, who seeks to win above anything. The argument was that if we play by those rules (or by negative advertisements and not by policy), then we will never get out of this ugly system. We might lose the election by refusing such communicative forms, but we will win the moral high ground, which has its own capital. (This was, BTW, an argument made by certain democrats during the primaries.) In other words, exploitation cannot breed justice.
    Viveca’s argument, that it is more just to do what is necessary to win and feed children now than wait for some future victory, is also compelling. Again, it is not an ad hominem or just an opinion, but rather argumentation (as the deliberative democrats would see it). If she and I wish to engage each other democratically, we have to respect the moral integrity of these two positions and try to talk about them, if not reach some consensus.
    Is this depiction of deliberation a naive theory of politics? Perhaps. Idealistic? Most certainly. But G&T are very clear that it could be taught, that we could practice it, and that if we did, folks on the left and right just might find a healthy and open communication to replace the truly ugly partisan shouting that dominates the public sphere. And Joanna notes that there are plenty of good folks trying it out. I would also add to her list Let’s Talk America.
    Scott asks if I really support this moral position. I’m not sure how much my actual commitments matter with respect to my ability to argue for it, but just to be fair I’ll lay my cards on the table. I think any savvy rhetorician knows you have to fight propaganda with propaganda. My real problem with Moore is not that I think he is propagandistic, but that he does it in a way that is too crass, whereas my and his political opponents are much more slick. Swiftboat Veterans does in 60 seconds what Moore can’t do in 2 hours. That says something to me about the rhetorical weaknesses and inconsistencies of the left.
    And yet also, somewhere deep in my heart, I suspect my leftist politics and win-at-all-cost-because-your-opponents-will-do-the-same strategies are killing any hope for a democratic world.

  8. Hey, thanks for ignoring my comments all together. I knew that being fat was a joke which is what I tried to clarify, I later thought maybe the mother argument was also a joke which is why I said I might have spaced on that one BUT what I called “manipulative” was shorthand for what you called “his propagandistic style lowers us to the likes of Karl Rove, who seeks to win above anything. The argument was that if we play by those rules (or by negative advertisements and not by policy), then we will never get out of this ugly system” is what I was questioning. I’m not sure I get the “crass” point either. (Isn’t that usually used against working-class over emotional people, I think I’ve been called crass before.) My point was that his film can/should be critiqued but I’m not sure that your critique is very clear. What would a film look like under G & S’s model? Are

  9. I’m intrigued by Camille’s question about crassness and morality, and linking it to the body (when, where, by and with whom is it allowed to be present) and also to Leda’s comment about silence. DOES “silence speak in a democracy”? Because it seems like taking the moral high ground has an aura of invisibility about it, a non-saying, and yet the body (originator of the silence) is still there ~ occupying space, utilizing time, producing/emanating energy.

  10. I’ve expressed two points of view that seem to be conjoined by others, so I want to clarify.
    The first was a moral argument against Moore’s films to illustrate one way of looking at deliberative democratic exchanges: (1) propagandistic films of any sort perpetuate a bitter, partisan, and unjust political system, (2) Fahrenheit 9/11 is a propagandistic film, so (3) Moore’s film perpetuates a bitter, partisan, and unjust system. If you agree with this argument, or if you are willing to recognize its moral implications and integrity (exploitation of an audience cannot breed justice), then our collective question is what to do about it. This is a non-partisan argument against all forms of propaganda, regardless of their political ideology or source; healthy democracy cannot exist if caught in such a web.
    The second was my personal criticism of Moore’s films, which I see as failing to do the primary work of propaganda, namely to seduce others who would otherwise not agree. I think Moore preaches to the choir, and has actually played into the hands of the Right by becoming a caricature of the outrageous / crass liberal. We would need to see the numbers, but I suspect more

  11. Now: is it any wonder that I’m confused? Stephen makes the argument that Moore’s film is bad because
    a) it is propaganda
    and
    b) it is ineffective propaganda
    No – just kidding. I understand the distinction (and I confess – I was a little spaced out). But, for what it’s worth, here’s my take on the film:
    As to charge a): I think this whole question of whether or not the film is propaganda is kind of moot. First off

  12. I cannot help commenting on the series of scenes in Fahrenheit 9/11 that feature the GI’s mother. My first reaction to the scene was that it is a perfect example of a type of presentation that to me, as a Hungarian, comes across as patently U.S. American. It reminded me of another performance at my old university, SUNY-Albany, when a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) speaker stood on the podium and related, in tears, the story of how her son was lost in a car accident that involved drunk driving. It is so cliche for international students to come out with their respective culture shocks, but I will, all the same, for the sake of the argument. I found seeing this woman up there, in tears, talking about her deepest sorrows IN FRONT OF A CROWD deeply shocking. I cannot imagine a similar scene taking place in Hungary where the loss of your son is your business and noone else’s, period.
    After having encountered similar performances I gradually came to realize that speaking of your private feelings in formt of a multitude of people – if it’s done in the name of a good cause – is a mode of public speaking that is considered sensible and agreeable by many U.S. Americans. The presentation of feelings in public served a genuinely honest and moral end for that MADD mom, and for the crowd that accepted it as sensible.
    Superimposing these personal experiences on the presentation of the GI mother in Moore’s film I am ready to risk an argument: the presentation of the mother’s change of mind in an intensely political film is a performance of political (democratic) participation. This argument of course presupposes that the presentation took place with the mother’s willing participation. With the American frame of reference in mind I see the mother’s willingness to present her private feelings to millions who watched Moore’s film as an example of democratic participation.
    Has Moore taken it too far with this woman? Possibly. I feel that Scott, for example, has reservations. But it is “powerful stuff” all right – the utilization of a genre in a powerful way.

  13. a quick note on the mother in moore’s film: I heard her on Amy Goodman’s show and she credited and thanked Moore for her ability to move from paralysis and mourning to *voice*ing dissent, making moves towards advocacy/lobby, and, of course, therapeutic expression/catharsis. All of those moves seem to be democractic opportunities that might not have been available (to this extent) had Moore not given her a platform for performance.
    Speaking of performance, my experience was that this mother’s story was the most UNcomfortable part of the movie, the part that I personally banked on to ‘move’ people. So though it was difficult for me to watch, I appreciated the emotional performance that David speaks of – precisely because it WOULD make people uncomfortable. I tend to resist the convention of keeping public speech contained, impersonal, and rational.

  14. When I claimed that Moore exploited the grieving mother (Lila Lipscomb) in class, there was little uptake. We’ve worked out more of an argument here since Camille introduced it. Let me make a case why I think what he did is exploitative: In his attempt to tell his story, Moore did not consider how the political Right would frame Lipscomb and let her performance play into their hands. Did any of you catch the Right-leaning critiques of F911? They said exactly that: liberals will stop at nothing to spread their propaganda, even prey on women. It doesn’t matter if she went on Amy Goodman’s show and claimed otherwise. It’s that she never went on Bill O’Reilly’s or Rush Limbaugh’s, and even when she talked to USAToday or Good Morning America or the Guardian, they asked her about Moore’s penchant for manipulation. Conservative blogs lit up with accusations of Moore’s decision to

  15. Oh, hey! Let me be clear here: I was not in any way attempting to equate Ken “I invented Jazz, Baseball, and the Civil War” Burns with Michael Moore! (Surely I’d have failed my comps question on Documentary with such a claim). I was trying to say that even documentary styles as different as Burns and Moore have some similarities at their base.
    As to the second point – about how Liberals should act. I’m serious this time, and not just spacing out. It really seems to me that we have a bit of a double standard going on here. On the one hand, we have a great discussion going on about what forms democratic communication should take – and on the other hand, we are supporting a “rhetorical strategy” that goes explicitly AGAINST such a form. Stephen said:
    “To your question, how should liberals act? The answer: not like lunatics, elitists, or nurturers. How about like sane, clean-cut, god-fearing, family-oriented patriots who wave the flag proudly and say it like it is through sound-bites?”
    My question is still: which is it? Are we proponents of Town Meeting, disagreement, moral reflexivity, and radical antagonism – or are we diabolical manipulators, willing to sacrafice such a form in order to “win” outright???
    I suspect Stephen’s answer will be “both.” I don’t mean this as a challenge, but as an honest question. I find myself agreeing with Stephen when he argues eloquently for a radical democratic form, and agreeing with him when he argues that John Kerry should fight dirty, and Michael Moore should be better at playing the spin game.
    But I have yet to reconcile, in my own mind, how these two things go together. I’d love it if we could throw this question into the arena at some point.
    Scott

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