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CDD Statement on Controversy in the National Communication Association

The Center for Democratic Deliberation(CDD) is a nonpartisan interdisciplinary center that promotes research and programming focused on rhetorical aspects of democratic deliberation. It’s one of two centers of excellence in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State.

Many faculty and students in the CDD community are members of professional societies in the fields of communication, composition, and rhetoric. This includes the National Communication Association (NCA). Controversy erupted recently within the NCA membership over proposed changes to its procedures for Distinguished Scholar awards. The dispute quickly affected allied academic communities like the Rhetoric Society of America, to which many members of the CDD community also belong. 

Since NCA created the Distinguished Scholar Award in 1991, only one person of color has received this honor. Its recipients are overwhelmingly white men, joined by a moderately increased number of white women in recent years. 

The changes, as the NCA Executive Committee proposed them, are intended to increase award nominations for exceptional scholars from marginalized communities—people of color, women, LGBTQ members, and persons with disabilities—whose work has transformed their fields of study. The core of the controversy involves some Distinguished Scholars’ perceived deployments of merit as a defense against such changes, which were proposed in the name of diversity and inclusion.

These immediate points of controversy are painful symptoms. Controversy like this in a single scholarly society is part of the legacy of institutional racism throughout higher education and the nominally democratic society that it serves. Opposing institutional racism and its fundamentally anti-democratic entailments is an essential part of the CDD’s mission. The CDD also stridently opposes, as part of this same mission, institutional sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism—including the hierarchies of value and bodies of knowledge from which they derive.

Beyond those declarations, the controversy in NCA lays bare a difficult set of truths. Universities and scholarly societies are hierarchies. They establish and pursue highly laudable goals. But they pursue those goals by assigning merit, power, or authority to some bodies, and not others, in structurally unjust or inequitable ways. Universities and scholarly societies are built to function this way. Yet they promote and even celebrate themselves as truly egalitarian spaces.

Communities within universities and scholarly societies may enthusiastically adopt the language of diversity and inclusion. They may propose rules changes or changes in leadership—sometimes dramatic ones, with great passion. The CDD certainly endorses constructive policy changes and, if it can lead to significant reforms, the language of diversity and inclusion in those institutions. But the machinery of institutional discrimination will still comprise a huge portion of their foundations and overall functions if it remains unaddressed in structural terms.

The word “democracy” can refer to formal institutions of governance. As a guiding idea, however, it originally referred to an absence of hierarchy. In classical times, the power to govern was said to reside in an arche, meaning an origin, beginning, or first principle. That foundation of authority usually supported an essentially authoritarian hierarchy, whether in the form of military power, nobility, religious authority, or wealth. 

Democracy names the ideal of governance based on no fundamental arche, on no innate hierarchy, even when its practice enshrines governance of the majority by the few. Yet, in its fullest expression, democracy always retains the possibility of dramatically transforming whatever archepresently exists.

The CDD proposes not only that NCA and other organizations institute substantive reforms. It insists upon the need to forge a new arche—one without existing hierarchies. It insists, in particular, upon the need to reflexively address institutional tendencies to reproduce privileged social networks as meritocracy.

All of this poses the question of how the bodies that benefit most from existing hierarchies—the ones artificially invested with the archeas if it was natural—may be moved to disinvest from those hierarchies and advocate for more legitimately equitable associations.

Activist, songwriter, and storyteller Courtney Ariel suggests one path for doing so. Existing as one of those bodies who most benefit from existing hierarchies, she says, means that one owes a debt. And one may choose to pay it in any number of ways. 

Ariel does not mean a strictly monetary model. This work, she writes, may take many forms in society at large:

It might mean providing a meal or shelter, listening, using your particular area of expertise to help someone in need of that expertise who might not have access to it otherwise, bailing a protester out of jail, or paying a family’s rent one month (if you have the resources to do so), or marching at a rally with marginalized folks alongside other allies. There may not always be a practical, tangible way to pursue this work, but I believe you will know it when you meet it face-to-face.

Universities and scholarly societies should struggle over changes to bylaws, procedural rules, and leadership positions. But those changes, and the conflicts they entail, will not involve the kind of work that Ariel describes without confronting the fact that conditions of debt fundamentally shape unequal relations among very different sorts of bodies.

It will not involve that kind of work without asking what mutual commitment to repayment of debt should look like in the specific institutional spaces that those bodies inhabit—or, in many cases, from which they have been excluded.

Basing institutional membership on mutual commitments to do such work suggests a way to begin dismantling hierarchies built upon institutional racism and other forms of institutional discrimination like sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.

It suggests the possibility of a new arche.