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Making Sense of the Colorado Massacre; Or, (if you listen) You Can Hear the Guns Being Loaded

August 2, 2012

Unlike during the press following the Arizona shootings, no rhetorician has been interviewed on the topic of violence this July; nor has “rhetoric” been integrated explicitly into reflective conversations after James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 58 others in Aurora, CO. But even without being incited, there is still a call for Rhetoric made and in this case, the call emerges in the form of a question, omnipresent in recent headlines and in the same breath, one that weighs against the spirit of American citizens: how did this come to happen?

As reiterated by Alexis Teagarden in January 2011, not all situations are rhetorical, and neither are all questions. I propose that this question is a rhetorical one for three reasons: 1) it is a question that seeks a solution through language (for instance, a new policy or a more efficient way to categorize psychological distress); 2) Holmes’s intentions were expressed prior to his actions in writing; and 3) the communal flaw of not adequately sensing these expressions is one that exposes our failure of listening or our failure of being a rhetorical audience. The first reason clearly present in political debates, here I would like to pause to take up the latter two. By engaging in the critical activity of listening, we can see the potential for unnecessary violence and possibly prevent its occurrence.

The confession, both heard and missed

This past week, it was reported that Holmes sent a notebook detailing the plans of the movie theatre attack to a University of Colorado psychiatrist; it arrived July 12, eight days prior to the rampage. The alternative fate we imagine from this news remind individuals and institutions of how (un)fortunately accountable they are to preventing such a crime. It is, indeed, a somber realization, one that haunts when it comes too late, but if I may add, one that we have been haunted by before:

Columbine High School: In 1997, parents reported to authorities that Eric Harris, one of the shooters, wrote blogs that included diatribes against society, voiced desires to kill students and teachers at Columbine, and admitted to his possessing firearms and explosives. The website went uninvestigated. In February, two months before the shooting, Dylan Klebold, the second shooter, turned in an essay about a man who, wearing a black trench coat and carrying a duffle bag full of explosives, murders college students with pistols and explosives. It was an almost if not exact foretelling of his and Harris’s plan for their own school.

Virginia Tech: Seung-Hui Cho was an English major at Virginia Tech remembered for his peculiar, eerie, and off-putting disposition. In his writing classes, he turned in works that illustrated bizarre violent acts; this included a short fiction piece he composed in which the protagonist drew up plans for a school shooting. Shortly before graduating in 2007, Cho planned his own brutal attack on campus, which left 33 dead and 23 others injured.

Listening and sensing a solution

Prior to both the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, the assailants expressed their desire to kill. And in response to every expression, readers interpreted no immanent danger since there was no threat that worded their violent aims as such. Witnesses of these writings maintain that they understood them as fiction, as a dark play with words. But I remain alarmed that students with such backgrounds can present such material for it only to be considered as merely fiction. This surprise does not come from expecting violence to inevitably follow violent words, but rather from discovering that so many knew the perpetrators were disturbed. Cho was a pariah who was on several occasions reported to authorities for fear that he would harm himself or others. Harris and Klebold had a criminal record and, like Cho, a history of severe personality disorders. Have we really been an attentive audience? One that considers the fuller picture, beyond the text “on-its-own-terms?”

To this, Nancy’s philosophy of listening might provide some insight into whether or not we are performing to our best ability as a community of rhetorical critics. Nancy differentiates listening from entendre (“to hear”/ “to understand”) and calls listening an activity that drives us to wonder rather than to decipher a meaning. For Nancy, to listen is to (always) question; the process requires us to open ourselves up to multiple meanings and as we sense them, to (again) inquire and to (again) revise our impressions from the words we experience. The act of listening does not have a certain objective, that is, it does not have an objective of certainty. Listening is instead about sensing, and the sense being open to change.

Appropriating Nancy’s theory in terms that directly pertain to rhetoric, listening aligns with what Bitzer argued about the rhetorical audience: it means to be open to being moved and to be willing to change one’s mind. Should we thus push our reading to always question the certainty of one textual analysis? Grant that a violent essay is likely fiction, but also pursue the possibility that it may be disclosure from the author that warrants investigation and care?

In listening, we might sense and conclude that the things written are only speculative, but also before settling into that certainty, we think on the entire rhetorical scene, which includes the author’s history. In these cases, such consideration would have likely led to an appropriate feeling of urgency and a more efficient follow-up, which would have allowed a change in course. This in mind, I implore the critic resist Obama and Romney’s gesture to a so-called senseless violence. The violence that happened in Colorado is rhetorical precisely because when such event’s possibility is made public, it can be sensed, and it can give us the opportunity to act. The key to sensing potential violence is bearing in mind its potential to be; when an author discloses its potential (whether or not he or she intends for that violence to materialize), he invites us to inquire, to investigate, to explore every possible meaning and motive. We are, after all, the audience; the rhetor has faith that we can be moved, that we can be open to believe and to respond.

If you want to know more:

* For more on theories involving listening: see Jean Luc Nancy’s On Listening and Lloyd Bitzer’s essay “The Rhetorical Situation” in the inaugural issue of Philosophy & Rhetoric. Holmes’s document, of course, was not even opened. This detail should further our thinking on the importance of listening, and bring us to question how divorced we are from that process: are we given the opportunity to listen? Do we turn away from it when it’s given? We can’t possibly always be engaged in listening, so how do we choose the kairotic moment?

* Obama and Romney’s responses to the Colorado shooting (which can be watched here and here) refer to James Holmes as “evil”; politicians did the same after Jared Lee Lougner’s shootings in January 2011. The use of “evil” in this context perpetuates the assumption that the violence is senseless to us, which disables any (rhetorical) social action. For more on the banality of evil and understanding “monsters” and the things they do, please see my last blog entry here.

* Much of the information I cite regarding the Columbine High School massacre and the Virginia Tech massacre was collected from two documentaries: The Final Report: Columbine Massacre (released in 2007) and Massacre at Virginia Tech (released in 2008 by BBC). The full videos can be watched in segments on youtube, the first ten minutes of each here and here, respectfully.

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