May 28, 2011
By Thomas Farrell
Too many African Americans are murdered in the United States each year. The time has come for a concerted civic effort to turn the tide. My position is that enhancing the functional literacy rates among African Americans would be the most effective way to reduce the murder rate.
Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) May 26, 2011: James Brown McGinnis III (1942-2009) wrote his doctoral dissertation in philosophy at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri, on Gandhi: FREEDOM AND ITS REALIZATION IN GANDHI'S PHILOSOPHY AND PRACTICE OF NON-VIOLENCE (1974). When Jim McGinnis was a graduate student at SLU, he was also the founder and program coordinator of the SLU Institute for Peace and Justice.
In that capacity, Jim McGinnis arranged to have Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), teach his new course on Polemic in Literary and Academic Tradition: An Historical Survey again during the summer of 1971. Through the SLU Institute for Peace and Justice, Jim McGinnis advertised the course. As a result, most of the students who enrolled in it had been recruited through the SLU Institute of Peace and Justice.
By the summer of 1971, I had completed the course work for my Ph.D. in education (concentrating on higher education), but I had not yet selected a topic for a doctoral dissertation. Because I had heard favorable things about Ong's new course, I asked him if he would allow me to audit it unofficially. He agreed to allow me to do this.
Ong had developed his own thinking about polemic structures in his book THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (1967, pages 192-286), the published version of his 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University.
Ong subsequently changed his mind about the best term to use. Instead of using the term polemic (from the Greek word "polemos" that means war, struggle), he switched to using the term agonistic (contesting, from the Greek word "agon" that means contest, struggle) in his book FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (1981), the published version of his 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University.
Figuratively speaking, we could say that the Homeric epic the ILIAD invites us to see life as seemingly never-ending war and that the ODYSSEY invites us to see life as a seemingly never-ending contest.
In Aristotle's view of dialectic, dialectic involved back-and-forth pro-and-con debate to clarify ideas and predications. In Aristotle's view, most often civic rhetoric involved back-and-forth pro-and-con debate about specific charges made in law courts and about specific proposals made in legislative assemblies. In all instances of back-and-forth pro-and-con debate the structure of the discourse involves polemic (verbal battle and warfare, figuratively speaking).
In any event, in his book ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (1982), Ong describes oral cultures and residually oral cultures as agonistic (pages 42-45, 69-70). For all practical purposes, all non-Western cultures in the world today are to one degree or another residually oral cultures. In oral cultures and in residually oral cultures, agonistic structures are prominent.
Moreover, in oral cultures and in residually oral cultures, a strong honor-shame culture is usually dominant. Now, if you have no clue about what anthropologists mean by honor-shame cultures, check out the book CULTURE AND CONFLICT IN THE MIDDLE EAST by the anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman (2008).
Next, I want to turn to the big-time transformations of agonistic structures that emerged historically with the development of modern capitalism, modern science, and modern democracy in what Ong refers to as print culture. These three big-time transformations of agonistic structures can be characterized as more irenic in spirit than, say, warrior training typically was and is. The code term for referring to the cumulative impact of these three big-time transformations is modernity.
I said above that all non-Western cultures in the world today are to one degree or another residually oral cultures. In other words, to a significant degree, they are pre-modern cultures.
In his thought-provoking book MANLINESS (2006), Harvey C. Mansfield of Harvard University makes a relevant observation: "The entire enterprise of modernity . . . could be understood as a project to keep manliness unemployed" (page 230). But the Navy SEAL Team 6 that carried out the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan would be an exception to Mansfield's generalization. But instead of thinking of SEAL Team 6, we should think of warriors such as Achilles, Beowulf or Othello, because we can then perhaps understand Mansfield's point better.
Before I move to my next point, I want to explain that the Greek word "andreia" means both manliness and courage. At first blush, this may seem to exclude women from manifesting courage. But of course this is a foolish contention because women can manifest courage.
Next, I want to turn to making some admittedly controversial points.
In the book VIOLENCE & GENDER REEXAMINED (2002), Richard B. Felson "cites research suggesting that the motives for violence against women are similar to the motives for violence against men: to gain control or retribution and to promote or defend self-image."
In the terminology that I used above regarding the honor-shame thought-world, it sounds like the honor-shame thought-world is behind the motives for violence, specifically behind the motives to gain retribution presumably for being dishonored and to promote or defend self-image and one's honor.
Now, it has been reported recently that nearly half U.S. murder victims are African Americans despite the fact that African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
In the 1970s and the 1980s, I published articles in refereed journals in which I suggested that black inner-city youth in the U.S. grow up in a residually oral culture, especially those who do not develop what is termed functional literacy levels in their reading scores.
How many books has Jonathan Kozol published lamenting the inadequacies of inner-city schools?
Evidently, the political will does not exist to address the serious problems that Kozol keeps writing books about, or else he would have stopped writing books about the problems.
But what about the murder rate among African Americans?
From my standpoint as a scholar devoted to Ong's thought, I would say that it is axiomatic that the murder rate among African Americans will go down as the functional literacy rates among African Americans go up.
Because President Barack Obama is the first African American president of the United States, perhaps he should undertake a concerted effort to reduce the number of African American murder victims in the United States.
Submitters Website: www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell
Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book WALTER ONG'S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE WORD AND I-THOU COMMUNICATION (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2000; 2nd ed. 2009, forthcoming). The first edition won the 2001 Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology conferred by the Media Ecology Association. For further information about his education and his publications, see his UMD homepage: Click here to visit Dr. Farrell's homepage.
On September 10 and 22, 2009, he discussed Walter Ong's work on the blog radio talk show "Ethics Talk" that is hosted by Hope May in philosophy at Central Michigan University. Each hour-long show has been archived and is available for people who missed the live broadcast to listen to. Here are the website addresses for the two archived shows:
Click here to listen the Technologizing of the Word Interview
Click here to listen the Ramus, Method & The Decay of Dialogue Interview