The Justice Talking format allows students to compose a controversy for the benefit of an audience and to perform the process of critical thinking without the pressure of needing to annihilate an opponent. Agonistic argument can be hurtful and corrosive to the human spirit and may undermine efforts to conciliate or to reach common ground on an issue (Tannen, 1998; Tompkins, 2003). We should all be mindful that we foster healthy community-minded ways of resolving conflicts and disputes, recognizing that some students prefer not to challenge opposing views directly or competitively. We can lead our students to follow the ethics of rhetoric as articulated by Henry Johnstone (1971), an ethic whereby rhetors stand resolute yet remain open to the possibility of changing their mind, an ethic whereby rhetors use gentle words and act compassionately in their understanding of the consequences of their arguments, in an arena where people are free to persuade and to be persuaded. The Justice Talking format is therefore not intended to be a showcase for individual voices or competitive debate but rather a densely textured exchange of ideas. I will quote from Adorno’s words describing the essay genre to underscore the essayistic spirit of this collaborative and dialectical format, “The fruitfulness of the thoughts depends on the density of this texture. Actually, the thinker does not think, but rather transforms himself into an arena of intellectual experience, without simplifying it” (pp. 160-61). For students accustomed to thesis-driven writing and inexperienced in this kind of intellectual exchange, the archive provides an opportunity to spectate first and generate their own set of criteria to strive for in their own practice.
Finally, the notion that there are always two equally valid sides to every argument is steeped in a worthy ethic of intellectual fairness and balance. However, I would argue that the notion of “fair and balanced” alone may lead to divisiveness and political enclaves. I consider it worthwhile to encourage students to weigh the sides more critically and to weigh the relative merits of different perspectives. Unlike the language of intellectual freedom expressed in Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR), a rhetoric of dissoi logoi asks students to discover their positions more through apprenticeship than indoctrination. In the ABOR, balance implies that for every liberal left view there must be a conservative right view. However, I agree with Stephen Olbrys that a rhetoric built on the Sophistic principle of dissoi logoi does more than institutionalize opposition. Unlike a rhetoric of opposition, a rhetoric of engagement allows us to teach students to maintain an intellectual equilibrium through a deep understanding of their own footing. The aim of practice is not simply the awareness of other ideas—often shorthand in consumer society for paying attention only to opinions one wishes to hear—but rather the ability to reproduce them, to understand them, and to critique them all. (Olbrys, 2006, pp. 361-2). Such pedagogy, as Olbrys explains, potentially turns “[t]he classroom [into] a site for lively disputation over public virtues and the impetus for fostering relationships predicated on respect and understanding” (p. 367).
In closing, I anticipate and wish to answer the charge of relativism because our discipline is inclined to embrace a pedagogy that emphasizes a diversity and pluralism of ideas and beliefs. While it is true that a thorough education in the conventions, commonplaces, languages, and histories of the community was fundamental to ancient rhetorical training, it would be overly simplistic to conclude that I encourage my students to find all perspectives to be equally valid. My faith in rhetorical strategies grows out of the process of searching for, articulating, and challenging plural truths in order to determine an ethical course of action. As Kenneth Burke acknowledges in On Symbols and Society (1989), it is easy to confuse the dialectic with the relativistic because “any term can be seen from the point of view of another term” (p. 256). However, he clarifies, when we look at the process as a whole from the standpoint of participation, we witness a “perspective of perspectives” or a “resultant certainty” that emerges from a contributing series of provisional certainties (Burke, p. 256). And it is from that summative standpoint, modified by multiple terms and incongruous perspectives that I invite my students, and from which you might invite your students, to discover the confidence to act in the world with commitment..