October 10, 2016

Debates and Pierre Bourdieu

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

It’s the height of the presidential election and perhaps you are as caught up in it as I am-- to the point of distraction. I’m reading newspapers more than usual, and constantly scan headlines for new bits of news. I’ll watch the talking heads debate. It’s a reasonable guess that you were, like me, one of the record-breaking 84 million people who watched Hillary and Donald debate on September 26th.

It is a good time, however, to take a step back and think about what we are really seeing, and think about how it might relate to the sociological classroom.

One of my all-time favorite books to assign is Pierre Bourdieu’s On Television. (Part one of it is available online, here.) In the book, he uses the venue of a primetime television special to talk about the invisible “rules of the game” to French television production. (One could not imagine such an event in the United States. Who would watch a sociologist talk about television for a few hours on PBS?) It’s a mental exercise that proves one of Bourdieu’s points: That television is not built for, nor used for, in depth analysis and thought. Who, I often ask my students, is a well-known U.S. public intellectual? After astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the name recognition on the imagined list drops precipitously.

The slim book, a transcription of Bourdieu’s televised lectures, is full of illuminating insights into the world of television and media. Some of these are more expected (e.g., he describes how television journalism cranks up sensationalism in order to get viewers), but others are not. He says that television “hides by showing,” noting:

[Television] can hide things by showing something other than what would be shown if television did what it's supposed to do, provide information. Or by showing what has to be shown, but in such a way that it isn't really shown, or is turned into something insignificant; or by constructing it in such a way that it takes on a meaning that has nothing at all to do with reality.

It reminds me of a book I used to assign in my introduction to sociology classes, Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear. Glassner deftly matches the moral panics we shouldn’t care as much about (e.g., road rage) with the stories we should care about (e.g., that automobiles are incredibly unsafe modes of transportation). He takes the example of the media’s overemphasis on African American men as perpetrators of crime, and details how, exactly, that African American men are profoundly vulnerable in our society (i.e., as more likely to be victims of crime, more likely to have health concerns, more likely to be discriminated against, etc.). We could turn this lesson to our news coverage today, where we focus on rare school shootings rather than the pervasive inequality in education.

Here is where our presidential debates come into focus. Bourdieu writes that television privileges certain kinds of actions and actors over others. Televised debates value “fast thinkers” and “good guests” not people who are correct, or educated on the issues. In the heat of the 2004 presidential election Jon Stewart famously went on CNN’s debate show, "Crossfire," to not only illuminate the "rules of the game," but then also hilariously skewered the hosts for not being good journalists.

For more sociological work on this, take a look at the work of Tufts professor Sarah Sobieraj. In her work with co-author Jeffrey Berry on political discourse on conventional and social media, they define outrage as a kind of political talk that is intended to provoke a:

visceral response... through the use of overgeneralizations, sensationalism, misleading or patently inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks, and partial truths about opponents, who may be individuals, organizations, or entire communities of interest (e.g., progressives or conservatives) or circumstance (e.g., immigrants) (2011, p. 19).

Like Bourdieu, Sobieraj and Berry note that such hyperbolic talk is designed to limit nuance, and is less about discussion than it is about “verbal competition” and “political theater.”

This is a lot like what Bourdieu says in On Television. He notes that television talking heads are successful not because they know more, but because they speak in a manner that works in that field. Lots of quick and familiar talk creates an illusion of meaningfulness. Bourdieu would say that it is more likely, however, that such fast thinkers are just speaking in clichés and common language rather than reaching for any real, new, or deep meaning. (Watch the debates and talking heads for the rest of this election season as politicians and media “experts” say things like “common sense,” “let me be clear,” and “here’s the bottom line.”)

Now, how can we flip this back into the classroom? Classroom debate can, at times, create more heat than light. I remember in my undergraduate classes how debates were often as much about the conversational style and persuasiveness of the people debating and not necessarily about how closely the content of the conversation hewed to the facts. These conversations were often about who debated best, not who had the best understanding of the materials; about who is most comfortable at public speaking, not who had a good idea.

To put a finer point on it, particularly since Hillary Clinton is the first woman in a major party presidential debate, there are dynamics at work in classroom discussion that could apply: men speak more frequently, and are likely to interrupt women (ahem!). Gender is not the only social force at work, either. First-in-family college students, for example, struggle with adapting to college cultural norms and with impostor syndrome.

So, here is what I do in my classroom: I make students prepare and write a speaking note for discussion. This way they are not thinking on the fly but after having thoughtfully read the assignments. Because students turn these assignments in the day before class, I am able to review them prior to meeting with them, allowing me to break into the conversation periodically (and gently) nudging quieter students along, or rephrasing their ideas to make a counterargument. (And, I definitely realize that this is a risky endeavor as a white male professor. I do my best not to whitewash nor speak for students of color.)

Somewhat paradoxically, there is, I sense, a great deal of hesitation to debate in the classroom at all. Perhaps this is just the campus culture that I am a part of at UMass Amherst, but I do not hear as much debate as I should expect. (Some data suggests that it has to do with the overwhelming amount of time students have spent in their lives being spoken to rather than being drawn into a conversation.) Perhaps is the issue is with me and my classes, but I find that students are often wary of intellectual confrontation. I certainly won’t presume that it is because students think I’m right and I am not saying students are less engaged.

In some way, one would think that the wider political culture would trickle down into our classrooms—that uncivil debate would infect higher education. By that hypothesis, students would adopt some of the more bombastic debate style they witness in the political sphere, and yet, my students tend to be reluctant to offer contrary opinions. (To test this, I have occasionally posited rather wild interpretations of a reading in a desperate attempt to provoke a response!)

Some older sources on the subject suggest that students are mimicking the more passive activity of, you guessed it, watching television. And yet, we live in a wildly different media age, wherein media activity is rich and interactional, particularly in regards to political issues. (My partial view might very well be skewed, since there is clearly political activity on college campuses having to do with BLM and issues surrounding microaggressions and the definition of free speech.)

What do you think? If there is room for debate in your classrooms, do you participate? Do you see gender and racial dynamics playing out in class discussion?

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