The Role of Narrative as a Form of Evidence in Modern Academic Debate
International Debate Education Association Conference, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary, October 2000Jason Taylor and Jason Jarvis, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA
The construction of this essay has been an enlightening experience for the both of us. As we sat down to discuss the details of the paper and formulate our arguments we went through a stimulating series of discussions. We set out to organize a coherent argument for the use of narrative as an alternative source of evidence. We explored a number of possibilities for the direction of the paper. Midway through this process it apparent that the way we were going about defending narratives was constructed in a manner that was completely disassociated from narrative styles of discourse. We realized that we were caught in a paradox. We were, in essence, invoking a highly specialized and technical rationality in order to defend a mode of discourse that seeks to question the practice in which we were presently engaged. We were invoking narrative in a very non-narrative style. “Why don’t we just tell stories for our conference presentation?” one of us suggested. Though we entertained the idea for some time, we eventually came to the conclusion that simply “telling stories” on an international conference panel would not meet the standards of academic rigor that the community expects. Nor would it give us appropriate justification to request funds from our department to attend said international conference. Consequently, we set out to reach a compromise that acknowledged the technical and academic skills that allowed us to be part of this panel, and in that acknowledgement, provide a justification for the use of narrative in an academic and debate context. What follows is a result of that compromise.
Initially, we will explore conceptions of evidence as they are presented within two recently developed traditions of rhetorical theory. Specifically, we address Walter Fisher’s construction of the narrative paradigm and Thomas Goodnight’s elaboration of public, personal and technical spheres of argument. After examining the basic tenets of each person’s theory, we examine how narrative can function within the realm of modern debate and discourse to reconnect both speakers and listeners to ways of knowing that an exclusively technical form of argument excludes and inhibits. Narrative rationality offers a unique tool which can serve to balance the overarching focus that American academic debate and public policy debates have placed on exclusive and technical modes of discourse. These claims will be made through an examination of the importance of narrative in the context of debates about the environment, with a specific emphasis on the bush meat crisis facing Africa.FisherFisher’s primary contribution to our understanding of evidence stems from his articulation of the narrative paradigm. Fisher considers the means by which people evaluate arguments made within the public sphere (Fisher, “Narration as a” 11-15). He is particularly concerned with the increasingly technical nature of moral issues that are evaluated within the public sphere. Fisher asserts that given the traditional view of rationality, publics must be trained in the standards of a rhetorical community in order to evaluate the complex arguments and evidence that they generate (“Narration as a” 4). Unfortunately, most of the public lacks this technical training. Similarly, no individual can begin to reach the levels of proficiency in all of the fields that would be required to evaluate the breadth of issues that are addressed in the public realm. Consequently, Fisher suggests that alternative conceptions of rationality are necessary in order to explain the public’s capacity to understand complex technical evidence that is presented to them. Fisher’s narrative paradigm offers that alternative. Fisher offers a theory of communication that considers humans as homo narrans; people understand the world through the telling and assessment of stories (Fisher, “In the beginning” 75). In this sense, Fisher argues that all evidence can be evaluated by means of a narrative rationality. In his theory, Fisher establishes two conceptions of rationality, the rational world paradigm and the narrative paradigm. The rational world paradigm assumes that humans are rational beings that make decisions based on the assessment of structured arguments. People’s capacity to understand arguments is based on their augmentative skill, knowledge of the subject matter, and proficiency at operating within the appropriate normative structures that shape the argument (Fisher, “Narration as a” 4). Fisher suggests that the public sphere has become dominated by the presence of “experts” who have distorted the meaning of public moral argument for the layperson (“Narration as a” 11-15). The consequence of this distortion is the mitigation of the general public’s capacity to effectively comprehend and contribute to public moral argument. The primary problem with adopting a rational world-view of rationality is that it lacks explanatory power in elucidating peoples’ navigation of public moral argument. Many moral issues that are evaluated within the public sphere are laden with technical terms that most lay persons would not understand given the tenets of the rational world paradigm. Issues of global warming for example, are heavily dependent on complex understandings of gaseous chemistry and physics. Despite these complexities, people are able to come to understandings of important issues. Fisher asserts that the people’s ability to understand public moral argument can be explained more adequately by the narrative paradigm. Conceiving of human beings as storytellers, Fisher contends that people make sense of technical forms of evidence through the use of narrative rationality (Fisher, Human Communication as Narration 349-350). The two primary components of narrative rationality are narrative probability and narrative fidelity. Fisher elaborates:
One of Fisher’s principal critics is Robert Rowland. Rowland suggests that Fisher is over-ambitious in claiming that narrative should be considered a paradigm (264-275). Two elements of Rowland’s critique that are particularly relevant to this discussion are considered hereafter. First, Rowland maintains that Fisher’s construction of narrative rationality ultimately resorts to the same standards of rationality inherent in the rational world paradigm. Rowland explains:
Finally, Rowland sees the presence of experts in the evaluation of public moral arguments as necessary and rejects Fisher’s suggestion that knowledgeable individuals should serve as counselors. He asserts that the distinction between expert and counselor is not all that dramatic in the first place and that by having knowledgeable people fill this role, Fisher does not avoid the problem that he attempted to solve. There is no check to ensure that counselors would not still abuse their status. Similarly, there is no reason that a “traditional rationality… has to be elitist” (Rowland 272).
GoodnightGoodnight’s contributions to our understanding of evidence lie in his distinction between the public, personal and technical spheres of argument (“The personal” 214-227). Goodnight’s primary contention is that each of these respective realms is governed by a different set of evaluative standards and thus is distinct from each of the others. These standards determine the kinds of evidence that are appropriate within certain communities and the standards that are utilized to evaluate the utility of that evidence. Goodnight posits:
The personal sphere, according to Goodnight is prototyped by the conversation. In this sphere, two, or a small number of individuals engage in conversation that is cast in some private setting. The participants determine the meanings associated with that conversation and standards for evaluating the veracity of claims made within the realm are transient and unstructured. Unlike the personal sphere, the technical sphere, is characterized by highly structured standards of evaluation. The exemplars of this sphere of argument are the trial and the experiment. Standards are applied in a consistent manner allowing for the consistent and efficient evaluation of argument. The final sphere of argument advanced by Goodnight is that of the public sphere. The public sphere exists and is necessary “…to address those topics that can be resolved neither through personal conversation nor state of the art procedure” (Goodnight, “Public Discourse” 429). The public sphere provides a forum for the resolution of controversy and for public deliberation. Goodnight is careful to assert that the boundaries between these spheres are not rigid and at times argument can exist within multiple spheres simultaneously, however, he does suggest that the boundaries are actively maintained by formal structures that encourage the independence of each of the spheres. Privacy laws, for example, discourage the government from meddling in private affairs, thus encouraging the independence of the spheres (“Public Discourse” 428-429).
Similar to Fisher, Goodnight sees the intermingling of spheres as problematic. Despite the fact that formalized structures exist that discourage trans-spherical influence, Goodnight argues that the public sphere “…is being steadily eroded by the elevation of personal and technical grounding of argument” (“The personal” 223). The overemphasis of the personal and technical grounding of argument within the public sphere has led to a general decline in Western culture’s ability to engage in public deliberation. Examples of this deterioration can be seen in recent elections, which according to Goodnight have been more about the presentation of a personality than the critical assessment of substantive argument. Similarly, technical concerns have infiltrated the public sphere in the assessment of many controversial conditions such as the environment. Without training in technical standards for evaluation of these arguments, or the access to the language to interpret them, the general citizenry has been effectively eliminated from public debate.
Goodnight’s assessment of the public sphere has been met with some resistance. Willard questions the manner in which Goodnight separates the technical from the public sphere. He suggests that this separation is achieved by the claim that “the public sphere is rhetorical while the technical sphere is not” (47). If the technical sphere is assumed to be a non-rhetorical sphere, it dramatically distorts our understanding of the ways in which policy decisions are influenced because it assumes that technical issues do not require public deliberation. This is certainly untrue.
Willard asserts it is important to recognize the influence of technical arguments on policy formation. At times questions only addressable by the technical sphere are incredibly relevant to our existence:
The CritiqueWhile Fisher and Goodnight’s constructions have certainly proved to be useful in understanding contemporary rhetorical behavior, we believe that an analysis of these theories yields several interesting implications. Most notably is the unidirectionality of influence between specialized, technical ways of knowing (the technical sphere) and common, narrative ways of knowing (the personal and public spheres). Both authors cite as the impetus for their theoretical constructions, the saturation of the public sphere with highly specialized and technical forms of argument. They see this influence as problematic and offer their theoretical constructs as a means to help rectify the situation. While we agree that the domination of specialized forms of discourse in the public sphere is problematic, we also contend that the inability of non-specialized, narrative discourses to influence technical spheres of argument is equally as problematic.As previously outlined, Fisher is concerned with explaining the public’s ability to comprehend arguments when they lack the specialized training of experts. He suggests that within the narrative paradigm, knowledgeable individuals should play the role of counselor, helping to guide the public to informed decisions. This construction, however, suggests a one way relationship between the counselor and the untrained. The counselor (expert) imparts knowledge to the layperson. As such this relationship excludes the possibility of mutual influence. It does not provide the opportunity for the layperson to impart knowledge to the counselor. Additionally, Fisher suggests that the Narrative paradigm is not meant to replace the rational world paradigm, it is intended to subsume it. Technical communities are simply viewed by the public as another form of a story and evaluated by the standards of narrative fidelity and probability. As such, Fisher seems to concede that certain rhetorical communities will continue to operate, invoking standards that exclude narrative ways of knowing from their epistemological foundations. Within these communities technical discourse retains its privileged status and excludes the possibility of outside influence. Thus Fisher’s construction may help explain the public’s ability to understand technical discourses in which they are not trained, but it does not make technical discourse communities accountable for the world outside of them.
Similarly, Goodnight’s construction of personal, public and technical spheres of argument implicates the inability of non-technical forms of evidence to be influential within technical spheres. While Goodnight does recognize the public’s ability to influence the technical sphere at times, he sees this relationship as an issue of resource allocation not epistemology (“The personal” 221-222). Additionally, Goodnight’s exclusive focus on the tainting of the public sphere by the technical and personal spheres and the exclusion of any reciprocal influences illustrates the need to consider the potential of these relationships.
The claims of Goodnight and Fisher are particularly important for scholars of argument and society at large. We contend that the problems we identify below with exclusive technical communities can be seen in other groups such as science and academia, but we have chosen to focus on modern American policy debate. Therefore we will identify some of these problems and then look at debates about the environment as emblematic of the problems created by the rejection of narrative as a legitimate form of knowledge.
Initially, two things should be noted. First, our goal is not to trash American policy debate as a whole. We echo the sentiments of one debater who said: “No other setting can encourage the development of as many different political skills in the form of research, communication and critical thinking, but that is no excuse to become complacent. Everything can get better” (Smith and Grove A-3). Our goal is to demonstrate that failure to include narratives as a legitimate form of evidence is dangerous because it implicitly limits the social significance and educational value of our activity. Second, unlike Hollihan, Baaske, and Riley we do not advocate narrative as a paradigm for debate. Our position attempts to augment the conception of narrative advocated by McDonald and Jarman who suggest that narrative should be considered as another form of evidence (6). Personal accounts, poetry, song, and oral traditions that rely on storytelling offer the prospect of understanding issues in diverse ways. Indeed, we intend to demonstrate that some issues cannot be grasped unless presented in a format other than traditional technical discourse.
Unfortunately, much of modern American policy debate mirrors many of the problems identified by Fisher and Goodnight with the rational world paradigm and the exclusivity of the technical sphere of discourse. While some teams have attempted to change this condition, high school and intercollegiate policy debate in America remains a highly exclusive, technical activity that relies on student and faculty experts who participate in a rapid regurgitation of technical information. Debate is private in the sense that it involves a small number of people engaging in a series of two hour conversations about policy issues and it is highly technical in the language, customs and information that is used in the activity. The general public has little or no understanding of our activity and would be unable to relate to the average policy debate round. Hollihan, Baaske and Riley explain this phenomenon:
Second, our decisions about the future of American policy debate are important for both our own community and the future of the policy debate community worldwide. This conference is indicative of the fact that our community is not isolated from the rest of the world. American debaters travel yearly on tours of Europe, Japan, and other countries. Foreign coaches come to the United States and study our format in an effort to introduce it to their country. Gyeong-Ho Hur spent four weeks in Vermont this summer studying policy debate with the explicit goal of starting a program at Kyung Hee University in Korea. American style, English language policy debate is being exported and it is incumbent upon our community to acknowledge both our strengths and our shortcomings in an effort to maximize its relevance to communities worldwide.
Third, an exclusive reliance on technical forms of knowledge is dangerous as it serves to desensitize community members to the social reality of the information that is being read. American policy debater Jairus Grove of the University of Texas noted that typical debaters seem “more concerned with the risk of political debate than the effect the presented policies had upon those without the ‘political capital’ to heard or considered important” (Smith and Grove A-1). Jairus and his partner actively sought to incorporate poems, songs, and narrative in an effort to “focus on new political possibilities” (Smith and Grove A-1).
While it is ironic that we can find joy in the tragedy of others around the world as we do research and prepare our arguments, a failure to recognize this irony is tragic and horrifying. In short, does the technical process of debate maximize our educational potential? Does the rejection of narrative as a legitimate form of knowledge and evidence inhibit the ability of our community to truly know the issues and subsequently to translate that knowledge into a complete understanding and relationship to the gravity of the problems that we research? In order to demonstrate our claim that the policy debate community must embrace narrative as a form of evidence we will examine the African bush meat crisis and the importance of narrative in changing our values about non-human nature.
The Bushmeat CrisisWhile there are many environmental problems that we could use to illustrate our claims, this year’s collegiate debate topic provided us with an example that captures the essence of the value of narrative in communicating information in unique and powerful ways. More specifically, we choose to focus on the bush meat crisis in Africa. While the problems that face Africa are many and varied, the bush meat issue is valuable because it exists at the intersection of many issues that challenge the future of the African continent. Bush meat is intimately related to economic development, survival of indigenous cultures and traditions, biodiversity and ecological sustainability, and the AIDS epidemic that has swept across both Africa and the world. Each of these issues will be addressed in turn.Bush meat has traditionally been associated with subsistence hunting practices of African societies. Indigenous hunters would roam the jungles and forests of Africa and hunt animals from the “bush” to eat as food. Any game obtained from the wild in Africa would constitute bush meat. However, the advent of intensive logging has led to the commercialization of the bush meat trade. The result has been that areas of forest that were previously inaccessible have become available to commercial hunters who are now providing meat to the growing populations of cities throughout Africa. In Cameroon, “half a ton of bush meat, mostly of chimps, is transported to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon every day” (Wasswa). Indigenous forest dwellers have been replaced by illegal for profit hunters who are literally emptying African forests of their wildlife (Africa News, “Chimpanzees”). Even worse the demand for bush meat has increased internationally, and bush meat has been seen on menus throughout Europe and the United States (Africa News, “Gorilla”).
Sadly, primates are uniquely threatened by this practice. As much as 20% of the illegal bush meat trade is primates (Rose, “The African”). The hunting of primates has driven them to the brink of extinction in Africa, eclipsing deforestation as the primary threat to the existence of primates (Africa News, “Chimpanzees”). Even worse, scientists in West Africa announced that the first primate extinction of the century has officially taken place. Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey was declared extinct in September (CNN). Additionally, six species of primates have been added to the list of endangered species by the World Conservation Union, due mainly to the illegal bush meat trade (CNN). These announcements underscore the incredible importance of rapid action on the bush meat issue.
There are both intrinsic and instrumental reasons to protect primates and stop the spread of the commercial bush meat trade. Joseph Verrengia notes that the bush meat trade is particularly pernicious because it threatens the viability of chimpanzee cultures. Chimpanzees have been seen to exhibit characteristics that had previously only been associated with human societies and cultures. Primates use tools, have grooming and mating customs, and use plants for specific medicinal purposes (Verrengia). In similar situations the international community has intervened when cultures and communities were threatened with annihilation. The fact that these cultures happen to be “animal” cultures hardly seems to justify inaction.
Additionally, wildlife expert Ian Redmond noted in 1998 that primates are often a linchpin of local ecosystems:
Finally, if the previous intrinsic justifications for curtailing the bush meat trade were not compelling then consider the fact that most of the world’s leading scientists have concluded that bush meat is the most likely origin of the current AIDS epidemic. Failure to curtail the bush meat trade may well result in new strains of HIV being unleashed upon the planet (Rose “Human Health”). This is because primates can transmit Simian Immunodeficiency Virus to humans, and bush meat is generally cleaned and processed out in the wild, creating ample opportunities for the transfer of the disease via blood and mucous to humans where it becomes HIV (Rose, “Human Health”).
While it is true that the above facts are startling and unnerving, the question remains what the best way to understand this issue is. Traditional debate practices would have us recite the facts and statistics at high rates of speed in an attempt to overwhelm both the judge and the opposition with the size of the impacts and the gravity of the situation. This approach has technical value and utility within technical communities, but it also has severe limitations. Our personal understanding has been most dramatically shaped by the narrative accounts that we have come across during our research. It is now time to provide a sample of those accounts and then examine the reasons why such narratives are critically important in shaping attitudes and changing beliefs about the non-human world and human practices which threaten to destroy the delicate balance of world ecosystems.
The Bush Meat StoryGary Richardson, of the World Society for the Protection of Animals recounts the following story from his trip to Africa in 1995:
Then amongst the throng I noticed the headless torso of a “silverback” lowland gorilla. The sight of this once majestic creature, laying dismembered by the roadside, filled me with revulsion. Its death seemed so pointless and futile. But to the traders and shoppers, who walked casually by, it was just another piece of meat.
From a sack, the owner of the carcass suddenly withdrew the gorilla’s huge black hand, which had been severed at the wrist. Its fingers were still flexible as passers-by fondled and inspected the meat. It looked so human, I found it impossible to believe that anyone could actually consider eating it.
The same day we visited another village where we were told there was a baby gorilla which had been captured alive. We arrived at the site at around midday and were shown the tiny body of the gorilla which lay in an old suitcase. It had died only a few hours earlier. The owner had tried to feed it with bananas, despite it being only a few weeks old.
The hunter told me he had shot the female a couple of weeks ago, hacked her up and put her dismembered body parts in a large sack. He then picked up the tiny baby and stuffed it into the same sack on top of its butchered mother. He sold the meat at a nearby logging camp then brought the baby home for his children to play with.
It’s hard to imagine a more gruesome fate for these highly sensitive and sociable animals. The great apes are mankind’s closest relatives, yet throughout Africa the slaughter of these magnificent species has been continuing unabated.
One of the dead animal’s eyeballs is pooping out, haphazardly, more like that of a badly wounded mono-eyed freak, peering sorrowfully from inside the bowl. The mouth is half-shut and a bloodied tongue, visible.
Placed besides the bushy head is a bunch of big, ripe bananas to presumably go with the macabre delicacy once it is stewed. The sight is gruesome, the atmosphere, grim. All part of a graphic illustration of the brutal slaughter of primates for the bush meat trade.
There are certain issues that demand narratives. McDonald and Jarman note that “narratives do provide knowldege. A story has the power to convey information and humanize a situation which might be unavailable in other formats. For instance, issues of racism and discrimination seem aptly suited to discussions via narrative” (6). While they confine their comments to a purely human context, I believe that their claims can be expanded to suggest that there are simply some issues that cannot be fully understood until you experience them: environmental problems are exactly such an issue.
Michael Bruner and Max Oelschlaeger note that two-thirds of Americans consider themselves to be environmentalists, yet paradoxically the “noose of the ecocrisis continues to tighten around their necks” (384). Why does such a paradox exist? We suggest that this is due to the dominance of the technical sphere in modern public discourse in relation to the environment. Gary Richardson’s story and one’s like it, frequently fall on deaf ears because they are overwhelmed by the narratives of science, exploitation and instrumentalism that dominate Western culture (Grove-White and Michael 44).
The dominant narratives of Western society explicitly discount the claims of environmentalists as hysterical or little more than hyperbole (Killingsworth and Palmer 3). Unfortunately, the mainstream rejection of environmental discourse has only served to provoke environmentalists more, creating a feedback loop that Killingsworth and Palmer explain succinctly:
Raglon and Scholtmeijer locate the real problem between humans and non-humans as a problem in the way that we understand the non-human world. They suggest that arguments alone will not create the philosophical and reflexive changes that are critical to altering our destruction of the non-human world. “It is only by telling new stories about the natural world, that we will eventually be able to find those ‘slippages’ necessary to radically reimagine ‘nature’”(22).
The implication of such claims for modern policy debate practices is somewhat tremendous. Every year debaters compile hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence, often about environmental problems. Ironically, we contribute directly to the environmental crisis through our tremendous resource usage and yet our impact on the environmental crisis in the real world is debatable at best. Moreover, we generally do not accept a form of evidence that many environmentalists and environmental philosophers identify as essential to changing the way all people (ourselves included) view the non-human world and our relationship to it. Raglon and Scholtmeijer indicate that:
The acceptance of narratives such as Richardson’s or other more non-traditional narratives such as poems or songs is critical to expanding our intellectual and discursive horizons as an intellectual and emotional community. The dominant cultural discourse that rejects non-objective work as a legitimate form of evidence is a fundamental part of the larger environmental problem. Academia is a unique example of these issues as C. A. Bowers explains:
If we believe that our community is to have any impact on society at large then it seems imperative that we at least open our forum to forms of evidence that provide the “slippages” necessary to change our perspective about pressing social issues. As persons involved in highly technical, specialized discourse communities, we must recognize the potential for lived, embodied experience and the narratives that describe that experience to influence the technical communities of which we are a part. With respect to environmental issues, this means that an exclusion of narrative as a form of evidence to at least be used in conjunction with scholarly research dooms us to recreate the very problems that legitimize the pillage of the non-human world in the first place. In practice, the communities that we inhabit must question the rigidity of the means by which we evaluate evidence and remain open to alternative ways of knowing. This is imperative as we begin to engage the growing worldwide debate community and the valuable contribution that the American forensics community can make to debate on a global level.
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