Kuebrich, Ben. “‘White Guys Who Send My Uncle to Prison’: Going Public within Asymmetrical Power.” College Composition and Communication 66.4 (2015): 566-90. Print.
Ben Kuebrich writes about the limits of civil rhetoric in the efforts of communities to bring about true social change; he urges compositionists to take a more direct but cautious role in the kind of locally driven community organizing that he believes can address power inequities.
To develop his position, he recounts a case history of efforts in the Near Westside neighborhood in Syracuse to address police behavior. These efforts consisted of a collaboration between Syracuse University and the community, resulting in the creation of the Westside Residents Coalition (WRC) and the Gifford Street Community Press. During Kuebrich’s involvement with the community, the press published I Witness: Perspectives on Policing in the Near Westside, a collection of citizen voices. The activism that led to the book resulted most immediately from the proposed installation of surveillance cameras in the Westside neighborhood without consultation with the residents (571, 588n4). Residents felt that the decision to mount the cameras epitomized the disdain with which the police regarded the neighborhood and served as a call for residents to confront the existing power relations (571). The police responded by agreeing to meet with the WRC in conjunction with the Westside Police Delegation (571). Kuebrich became involved through a graduate course with Steve Parks; he was enlisted to help develop the book, which would make the perspectives of the citizens visible and possibly result in “greater communication and accountability” (572). He collected interviews beginning in 2011 and served as editor until the book’s publication in 2012 (567).
Central to Kuebrich’s concerns is the role that activist composition scholars have taken in promoting effective civic interventions. Drawing on Edward P. J. Corbett’s terms (568), he contrasts calls for rhetoric’s “open hand” as an effective means of influencing power asymmetries with situations in which the “closed fist” has emerged “tactically” (577) as a tool for promoting change. To analyze this distinction, Kuebrich draws on anthropologist James C. Scott’s work on “public” and “hidden transcripts” developed in Domination and the Arts of Resistance (569). The public transcript is the discourse created and “policed” (573) by the elites and the entities in power, generating a “self-portrait of dominant elites as they would have themselves seen” (Scott, qrd. in Kuebrich 569; emphasis original). In contrast, the hidden transcript expresses the actual perceptions and responses of the less powerful, “beyond direct observation by power holders” (Scott, qtd. in Kuebrich 569-70). Kuebrich enlists the work of Parks and Christopher Wilkey to contend that the “notions of civility and propriety” promoted by organizations like the Community Literacy Center (CLC) in Pittsburgh,, designed to move oppressed groups from what Linda Flower calls “a rhetoric of complaint and blame” (qtd. in Kuebrich 576) to a rhetoric more suited to public discourse, fail to empower citizens to make effective use of public channels (575-76).
This is so, Kuebrich argues, because the demands that the hidden transcript be made public by citizens “speaking out” entail serious risks for individual speakers and ultimately are dismissed within the extant power structures (574). The silence of oppressed groups, Kuebrich contends, is not “false consciousness,” in which the oppressed blindly subscribe to the conditions that oppress them, but rather a true critical awareness of the conditions under which they live. In contrast, rhetorical actions that elicit a response to the hidden transcript and gain power are those in which the speakers contribute to a collective voice (572, 574). Civil rhetoric and the “community think-tank” model (576) only earn such a response when they operate hand in hand with collective effort that “presents a credible threat to established power” (575). Kuebrich cites Nancy Welch’s exhortation to study effective social movements to understand why they succeed (569) and advocates assessing rhetorical strategies based on how well they actually produce results (576). Kuebrich’s case study of the WRC and I Witness explores how anger and resentment can be remodeled into effective collective action as the residents of the Near Westside developed strategies for engaging with the police (577). Important to this process, Kuebrich argues, is the progress toward concrete action (578).
Kuebrich explores the relationship between the public and hidden transcripts and their effects on action by analyzing two rhetorical engagements between the Near Westside residents and the police: the release event for the book attended by about a dozen officers and forty residents, and the book itself. The release gathering featured readings from the book, small group discussions over lunch, and a full-group discussion afterward. Kuebrich argues that this event did not become the kind of event at which the hidden transcript took center stage for active, open analysis (583); rather, it revolved around “loose terms like ‘dialogue,’ ‘communication,’ and ‘respect'” (581). The burden for effecting change fell upon the residents rather than on the police, who did not acknowledge the need to correct their own behavior; most issues on the table were the concerns of the police, not of the residents (582). However, Kuebrich writes, the engagement did leave the police “unsettled”: he believes the meeting “pushed the boundaries of public speech . . . without taking too many risks” (583). He argues that in such situations, activists hoping for a more confrontational moment should defer to citizens’ own assessment of the risks and benefits involved in speaking out (579-80).
I Witness, in contrast, makes public the specific concerns and perspectives of the residents in explicit language. Kuebrich illustrates, however, how one resident author acknowledged audience by softening his claims with an added introduction that focused not so much on the validity of “horror stories,” though some were aired, but rather on the importance for police to understand how their actions made people feel (584). Again, the emphasis is on the importance of the book as a collective statement, not as an example of a single heroic individual going public (587). Kuebrich closes with two small incidents where the police modified the public transcript to show deference they might not have shown before the book and the meeting; he argues for the existence of a “slowly shifting dynamic” that disrupts the carefully scripted public transcript that might otherwise pertain (587). Kuebrich urges composition scholars to study such events to better understand how to follow the lead of communities working as collectives to initiate change (587-88).