by Camille Kaminski Lewis
Camille Kaminski Lewis is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. The story of that publication is available at The KB Journal. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled, Klandamentalism: Dysfunction and Violence in America’s Most Romantic Religious Movements, and an anthology called One-Hundred-Percenters: Statements and Counter-Statements.
In pure identification there would be no strife. Likewise, there would be no strife in absolute separateness, since opponents can join battle only through a mediatory ground that makes their communication possible, thus, providing the first condition necessary for their interchange of blows. Put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric. Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric of Motives (25)
The Sunday before the 2016 Presidential Election I wore suffragette white. I am one of the remaining few Protestants who (strategically) identify as an “Evangelical.” I attend a PCA church in Greenville, South Carolina after all. It’s an Evangelical denomination. So naturally, I’m an Evangelical, right?
Underneath my buttonless white jacket, I wore several Hillary Clinton campaign buttons. Only I and my little family of four knew about them. But my choir robe was covering it all.
We sopranos were milling around before we would file in to the loft. A first soprano—“Jan,” I’ll call her—and I were chatting. I like talking to Jan because she’s a fellow Michigander, and I can understand her. To my ears, she has no accent. I, in the Burkean sense, identify with her. She brought up the election.
Now I love to talk about the two things polite society avoids—religion and politics. I love to find out how people think, why they vote the way they do, and how they see the world. It’s all research. And it’s irresistible. But so many South Carolinians are too genteel to engage this Detroiter.
But I can don the middle-aged lady cheerfulness to get more data. Jan was frustrated with the current political climate. I agreed. She didn’t know what this world was coming to. I agreed.
“It really feels to me like this election is a contest between good and evil,” Jan concluded.
Uh oh. Well, that’s a little too Manichaen for me. I’m a Burkean, after all. People are not evil, just mistaken, right? But I did feel that way. Even though Jan was clearly on the other side of the political aisle, I did feel like Trump was probably evil.
So I said it. “Yeah, I agree with that.” I didn’t tell her that I put her guy in the evil column. I didn’t let on that the words were ambiguous.
But then she went too far. I honestly don’t remember what she said. The coming flurry of words made me forget her exact statement. It was something like, “And Obama was not a legitimate president. He wasn’t even born in this country!”
There it was. The dog whistle. A loud voice in my head started screaming, “You can’t just happily go along with this, Camille. That’s racist. You have to say something. Don’t just go along to get along.”
So I said something. I separated from that sentiment. “I’m going to have to disagree with you there.”
Jan’s spine straightened. Her shoulders went back. Her jaw dropped. Her eyes widened. Her brows were up. “What?”
I explained. “I think Obama was a good president. I voted for him twice.”
Horror passed across her face.
I continued, “And in fact, I’m voting for Clinton on Tuesday. I’m doing phone-banking for her this afternoon.”
“You’re . . . a DEMOCRAT?”
She spat the word from her lips. Like she was saying “atheist” or “terrorist.”
Was I a Democrat? I don’t think of myself as one. Evangelical, yes. But Democrat? But it would be disingenuous, I figured, to back-peddle.
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
Aghast, Jan turned on her heels and left our conversation. She took her place in the choir line-up. . . . Right next to the tenors, where my husband Grant sings.
Jan huffed to him, “Your wife is a really pretty lady, but I can’t believe she’s a Democrat!”
Grant chuckled, “Well, I guess then we’re both Democrats.”
After church when my husband and I were hanging up our robes and filing away our music, Jan sought me out and apologized. She was just so stunned, she explained.
The next Sunday, again in our robes, Jan and I talked about the election. “Could you believe it?” I asked her.
“No!” Jan admitted.
“Did you stay up?” I continued.
“Oh yeah. My husband went to bed, but I stayed up.”
“Me too. Same. Michigan surprised me.”
“It didn’t surprise me.”
She was right. I had to give her that.
In his October 17 post, Pastor Kennedy drew Kenneth Burke’s identification into our “righting” conversation claiming that the Evangelical script is after identification alone. “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language,” Burke explained. However, Burke foregrounds more agon than we may give him credit. In pure identification, as Kennedy ascribes to Evangelicals, no rhetorical work is necessary since there is no strife. When Jan blew the dog whistle of white supremacy in a polite be-robed conversation, she assumed there would be pure identification. We were wearing the same clothing, we occupy the same space, and we even speak in the same dialect. The shock and the work and the hope came when there was ambiguity, when the “really pretty lady” in the second row of the Sopranos was not blowing the same dog whistle. Because we couldn’t know for certain just where identification ended and the division began, and we had the characteristic invitation to rhetoric.
We’ve all had the terrible comments on posts such as Kennedy’s interlocutor’s “No Demokrat is a Christian.” The frames of acceptance, to continue with Burke, have calcified. Perhaps the social media algorithms are thwarting the possibilities of ambiguity. Things are too clear and too separated and too recalcitrant. Perhaps the solution is to bring back ambiguous conversations in the church lobbies and choir lofts.
Will that work? Can we stretch the frames of acceptance?