Tag Archives: conflict

Might Their Hatreds be Tamed?

Sergei Rachmaninoff Wikipedia.org
Sergei Rachmaninoff                               Wikipedia.org

The romantic in me wants to believe that a person filled with the poison of division might learn from seeing other human beings literally acting in concert.  

Never mind that some of the people we encounter have rough edges.  It’s the murderers and vengeance-seekers we need to fear, like those who sow justifiable terror in the citizens of Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, and a host of other states that are struggling to again become civil societies.  News of terrorist mayhem in the Middle East and elsewhere feeds the obvious conclusion that human misery often flows from tribal tensions.  But our knowledge in a 24/7 satellite-saturated world hasn’t really helped us understand the cultural origins of long-held animosities. We see effects more than their causes. Even so, with enough optimism it is possible to imagine how we might begin to tame regional hatreds that feed the impulse in some to fight to the death.

Call me naive, but I wish every actual or future ISIS executioner would volunteer to spend an evening listening to an orchestra of diverse members perform something like Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony.  I’d especially wait in anticipation to see if their hatred might begin to melt under the warmth of the Third Movement.  The romantic in me wants to believe that a person filled with the poison of division might learn from other human beings literally acting in concert to produce something transformative.  You know this Adagio of the Symphony, where the melody is passed from the violins to a clarinet, back to the French horns, and eventually back to the strings. It’s probably the most breathtaking theme this melodic Russian master ever wrote.


This version by the Radio Philharmonic of Amsterdam is followed by comments on U-tube such as “beautiful,” “sublime,” “transfixing,” “magnificent,” and “incredibly emotional:” these, in a space usually owned by trolls.

Is it possible to find transcendence in a lyrical phrase?  Can music soften anger and the kind of fixed rage that feeds the impulse to destroy?  Could it be that we are looking for peacemakers in all the wrong places?

The idea of using music as an arena of shared experience is partly behind the efforts of Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said, who in 1999 founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.  The group is made up of Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians.  When war broke out in Gaza in 2009 Barenboim noted to audiences on both sides of the Palestine/Israel divide, “We aspire to total freedom and equality between Israelis and Palestinians, and it is on this basis that we come together to play music.”

The same impulse to return us to our shared humanity occurred In 1989, when Leonard Bernstein celebrated the end of a divided Berlin by performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the wall with an international orchestra of musicians and singers.  He noted that “we have not yet found ways, short of murder, to act out our suppressed rages, hostilities, xenophobias, provincialisms, mistrust and need for superiority. We still need some kind of lower class as slaves, prisoners, enemies, scapegoats.”  The concluding section of the symphony is its triumphal “Ode to Joy,” which can be easily understood as an affirmation of the new freedoms possible in a country made whole again.  Americans probably also heard a victory anthem at the rapid demise of a repressive Soviet Republic.  But Bernstein meant that Beethoven’s music should mean more, noting that “somehow it must be possible to learn from his music by hearing it. No, not hearing it, but listening to it, with all our power of attention and concentration. Then, perhaps, we can grow into something worthy of being called the human race.”1


1Bernstein quoted in Greg Mitchell, “When Bernstein and Beethoven Celebrated the Fall of the Berlin Wall,” The Nation, June 1, 2013.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

The Power of Rhetorical Transcendence

President Barack Obama and his congressional rival, John Boehner. AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama and his congressional rival,                 John Boehner.   AFP/Getty Images

Think of “transcendence” as a verbal bridge: a single word or phrase that narrows the gap between two views to the point where “opposing sides” almost disappear. 

The title for this short piece may sound hopelessly arcane.  But these are the exact words that should be used to describe what is a simple yet significant process for turning conflict into agreement.  The power is real and the process is useful.

The word “rhetoric” has few friends.  But it’s the right word to describe the daily chatter that emanates from us from morning until the end of the day.  We are not fact machines, but rhetorical machines.  We are not cameras, but practical artists:  rendering in the brush strokes of our own style what we have witnessed in life. The truth is that we routinely bend the world to our perceptions.  Apart from some forms of mathematical or programming language, our discourse is a complete mix of words and expressions that name as well as judge.  And because we usually do this to seek acceptance and agreement with others, we are—for good and ill—rhetorical.

Think of “transcendence” as a verbal bridge: a single word or phrase that narrows the gap between two views to the point where “opposing sides” almost disappear.  One of the virtues of thinking rhetorically is that it is easier to imagine escapes from hopeless impasses with others by thinking creatively about this kind of language of agreement.  If we sometimes use words as grenades that scare off potential supporters, transcendent ideas do the reverse.  So if someone baits another by calling the Affordable Care Act as “socialized medicine,” the impression is clear that there’s an unbridgeable divide that separates that person from a supporter.  That the program encourages people to sign up mostly with private insurers ought to be enough to get the flame thrower to pull back from such toxic language.   If not, there is still a rhetorical path to agreement. Different and more general words–sometimes called “ultimate terms”–can encompass the same subject area, but carry more of a tone of reassurance than threat.  As the critic Kenneth Burke noted, these terms tend to focus on values, first principles, common beliefs and the like.  So if we choose to describe the Act as a way to “guarantee a birthright of basic healthcare for every American,” it surely sounds better.  We recognize a “birthright” as a guarantee that comes with being a citizen of the country.  So while the lower end of the abstraction ladder includes terms or claims that still provoke disagreement–that insurance exchanges will actually work, that people will pay no more while still seeing their own doctors, and so on–the much broader “birthright” value is a point on which more Americans might find common ground.

Trancendance captureIn rhetorical terms, this is the point of transcendence.  It’s a universal principle or value where differences begin to yield to agreements.  So it is often the effective communicator who is capable of reframing an issue to find this point.  In public discussions and debates we often recognize the process of finding common values when an opponent probes the other side with a series of questions, for example: “Would you agree that no American should be sent into combat if a war does not involve our vital interests?”  “Can we both accept the idea that parents with children need adequate health coverage?”  “Can we start by accepting the principles enshrined in the First Amendment?”  Can we agree that all students in this city have a right to a good and comprehensive education?

So the ability to break through conflict is sometimes started—if rarely finished—by seeking the point of rhetorical transcendence where shared values are acknowledged by both sides.  That acknowledgment will not melt away conflicts.  But it’s often overlooked as a useful place to start.