April 25: Of Border Walls and Empathy

In “Reflective Encounters,” LuMing Mao first proposed what he called an “etic/emic” approach to studying non-euroamerican rhetorical practices (Style 37.4, 2003). This approach drew on structural linguistics and cultural anthropology to encourage a way of reading that was simultaneously sensitive to the perspectives derived from within a tradition and cognizant of the influence of the dominant perspectives from without of that tradition. The goal of this approach is not to empower a more authentic reading of another culture’s text, but to inhabit a “discursive third” space—an expanded understanding of the nature of rhetorical argumentation as it emerges from negotiated spaces between and within the terms it employs (Mao, “Writing the Other,” 2013). Ideally, it would raise our awareness of how we understand what we read (Mao, “Beyond Bias” 2013).

What makes this challenging in the context of U.S.-based undergraduate rhetorical education is a tension between (1) students’ desire to attain social justice through textual analysis and criticism using western or first-world terms; and (2) students’ own affinity for universalism, where they assume that the extant conditions informing a text must be flattened or elided in order for the text to have humanistic value. In short, the need for affective identification—some sense of commonness with the global population.

The desire for social justice and progressive transformation is something most millennials say they commonly share (along with a distaste for border walls and a desire to break them down). Affective response, empathic communication, and outrospection fortify the expectation that not only can they feel on another’s behalf, but that the best course to understanding is to feel on another’s behalf, no matter the distance separating their experiences or worldviews. However, even as I encourage global activism, I want millennial thinkers in my classroom to become sensitive to the critical problems created by these empathic expectations, to bring the intellectual landscape underlying these problems into deeper relief, and to do so without their feeling compelled to relinquish one set of cultural values for another.


Over the past few years, where I have needed students to be more willing to develop a terminology for critically engaging with conflict and for deconstructing alterity, I have observed that their grounding in a long tradition of Burkean “identification” (Rhetoric of Motives, 1969) reinforces their belief that empathy and social media circulation are sufficient strategies for bridging interpretive distance and attaining cross-cultural understanding. I found these to be unproductive assumptions when developing a senior level rhetoric course that investigates the nature of textuality and its relationship to various media and technologies through the examination of human rights texts.

My challenge in developing this course quickly became conducting it as a study in cross-cultural representation without treating representation as merely the toleration of difference, the importation of global ideals, or the exportation of local methods, leading me to consider some specifically critical methodologies for reading and understanding. In truth, I do not know how sustainable these methodologies are beyond certain learning spaces, but I do know that—while the teaching of writing has begun to more explicitly concern itself with multilingual and translingual pedagogies—the undergraduate writing major has not yet understood itself as a place to prepare students to do global rhetorical work, and I saw this course as one opportunity for that preparation.

When presented with texts out of situ—whether the text was student protests, or narrative testimonials of genocide survivors, or comics journalism, or landmark political addresses—my students’ first response was generally to try to elide the different contexts out of which these texts were made (and continue to be remade), to “liberate” the text and its interlocutors from hegemonic expectations of “difference,” to strive for a discourse “without borders,” so to speak. Their second response was to assume that recirculating text across accessible media gave them equitable power of understanding on another’s behalf, no matter the distance separating their experiences, philosophies, or visual lifeworlds at the moment they encountered the recirculated text.

I think these two responses were well-intended, stemming from a belief that genres are dynamic and vast, and that rhetorical interpretation is a transcendent practice not always bound by standpoint or difference. But as a move toward that discursive third positioning, I asked them to call into question the very implications of this belief. Rather than merely asking students to note textual strategies and evaluate them according to their own or another’s cultural logic, I wanted them to consider how various discourses that operate these cultural logics may or may not support appropriately cross-cultural notions of “circulation,” or “independence,” or “postcolonial,” for that matter.

My goal was not simply to reinforce standpoint, to fortify a native/foreigner distinction, or to insist that they could not authentically occupy the “other’s” place. My goal was to help them question the pervasiveness and dangers of empathy as the sole interpretive construct through which they worked and the sole outcome they hoped to attain through rhetoric. My goal was also to help them imagine a space for negotiating certain interpretive responsibilities that did not merely re-prioritize the dominant rhetorical tradition in which they had been trained. I wanted them to recognize their own tendency to say “because I relate to the other’s story, I am qualified to interpret it,” when the story to which they relate might still rely on fictive notions of “I” and “other.”


Achieving alternative methods for analysis in this course revealed our mutual struggle to reconstruct cross-cultural imaginaries for the sake of rhetorical interpretation, even as students’ own neoliberal positioning attuned them to the need to break all cultures down into imaginaries. I observed two reasons behind this struggle.

First, moving beyond “nation” as a locus of inquiry was a challenge all semester long because “nation” is a finite concept that students were willing to re-imagine but not to de-value, even when several of our readings directly challenged the notion that nations are the best construct through which to observe rhetorical dominance. Second, students resisted discussions of discourse that did not result in a concrete sense of belonging, or in an answer to the question of, “Well, then, where does this text—or this person—rightly belong?” by which they meant, “How can we possibly value this text if we don’t know who else will?”

Where we might feel compelled to restore to these textual performances a sense of nationalistic privilege, or where we might feel compelled to resolve a presumed tension between the native/foreigner distinction, instead I encouraged us to think about border, nation, and citizenship not as finite constructs or even human decisions, but as part of a text’s life cycle, and therefore as rhetorically distributed ideals.

For example, because we study rhetoric, we can analyze Thabo Mbeki’s 1996 address before the South African Parliament in certain ways and accept its significance. But if we want to ask ourselves why the remediated speech that circulated as a digital poem set to images from South Africa’s Kwazulu tourism bureau is also significant as a human rights text, we need to be able to ask a set of questions about collective place and transnational identification that don’t occur in our standard discussions about postcolonial positioning. In this view, decolonizing the recirculated text becomes a deliberate choice followed by a deliberate process (Nussbaum, Political Emotions), rather than the performance of empathy, or even the acknowledgment of circulation.

Achieving such an analytic is my ongoing challenge. After my third semester with the course, I don’t think I have found a way to convey that “native” and “foreigner,” “inside” and “outside” are best understood not as binaries, but as polarities—as idealistic “tendencies that are always in a state of interdependence and a process of becoming” (Ashby, “Uchi/Soto in Japan,” RSQ 43.4). In reality, the concepts themselves have no inner or outer limits until and unless we impose them, inviting us to question the art of that imposition—to accept global rhetorical literacy as the most dynamic, most distributed construct.

In order to arrive at something like a rhetorical literacy of globalization for the undergraduate writing classroom, students need various ways of recognizing how they participate in circulation, regardless of whether they feel responsible for what and how they circulate. In turn, we need a praxis of cross-cultural critique that is based in a literacy of distributed reception. Moreover, this praxis would need to present reception as critique, and to not settle for empathic identification, even as it refuses the border walls.