Entering into the Territory of a Controversy
Both civic and intellectual public spheres are animated by issues and ideas about which reasonable persons may disagree. We witness public controversies over actions (Should the war in Afghanistan continue? Shall we allow real estate developers to drain the wetlands area? Shall we permit early release for criminals?) as well as concepts (What counts as a successful career? How shall marriage be defined? Is the new sculpture on the public square beautiful? What value is there to reading romance novels? Is the death penalty just?). Though some Americans tend to think of disagreement as an inevitably brutal event, it need not be feared and cannot be avoided in democratic arrangements where members of a public are likely to base their judgments on conflicting assumptions about the nature of the world: What is best? most judicious? most ethical? most pleasurable? most faithful? most honorable?, etc.
We commonly say that writers enter into controversies, a metaphor that suggests crossing into a territory. When we enter into a debate, we stake our claims to a portion of that territory, a discursive space already buzzing with voices: arguments, counter-arguments, assertions, and rebuttals. We make decisions about how we will respond—if at all—to a particular controversy by analyzing and evaluating what’s already been said. As we enter into the territory of a dispute, a first likely question is: What have others had to say about this matter?
As best we can, we attempt to become knowledgeable about what’s been said. We research the history of the dispute: Who has been saying what, at which moments, in response to what other commentary about the issue? This is a matter of “doing our homework,” as we access the archive of discourses in response to the issue at hand. Some controversies extend over centuries; others flare up and die out quickly. It is rare that the territory of a dispute appears as a neat and ordered sequence of comments and responses. More often (and especially in intellectual controversies) the territory resembles a tangled thicket of articulated positions and responses. When you enter into a controversy, it’s useful to have at hand a conceptual map of positions. You create that map from reading and analyzing others’ texts. The library has various materials that will help you map the territory of disagreements that attend to an issue: synopses of major intellectual issues, handbooks of disciplinary and sub-disciplinary research, or any number of what are called “finding sources,” that summarize contemporary or historical research in various fields.
The territory of a controversy is composed of language and data: key terms, images, statistics, experimental findings, descriptions, definitions of terms, analogies, propositions, etc., each of these appearing in the context of an argument or analysis that has been made at a particular moment, situated against the backdrop of a community, discipline, or tradition of inquiry. When we read another’s commentary, argument, or analysis and prepare to respond, we become members of a public, persons not personally known to one another, but who share an interest in how the issue has been and will be treated, how certain arguments have been made, with what levels of success, with what prospects for negotiation or lasting difference.
The Stases: What Do We Agree Upon? Where Do Our Disagreements Begin?
Most civic and intellectual controversies hinge on four kinds of disagreement. Particular arguments stake their claims in one (or more) of these areas of interest. These four areas (called stases in classical rhetoric) are each composed of questions typically posed by those who are interested in determining exactly where disagreements about a subject are likely to be found. As used in ancient Greek rhetoric, the term stasis (stases, plural) literally means “a place of rest,” the same concept found in homeostasis, the term from Biology). The stasis is an imaginary line of demarcation, below which agreement exists, and above which disagreement begin. This imaginary line is important for any writer new to an issue to recognize since there is no reason to argue in support of claim which no one disputes.
Writers new to a particular controversy use the stases much like a compass, since they are designed to orient the user to particular areas of disagreement within the territory of a dispute. Readers can use the stases to map the territory of current and future disagreements within a controversy. They help predict why reasonable persons may choose to disagree about an issue at hand. The four stases include:
- Do some people believe that something happened, while others deny its existence?
- Is there disagreement about exactly what happened or about the sequence of events?
- Do eye witnesses describe the event in contrasting ways?
- Are there differing accounts of how the event began?
- Are there differing accounts of what led up to the event or what caused it?
- Do the facts of the case differ across accounts?
- Are there disagreements about where/how/when the event (or phenomenon) originated?
- Are there disagreements over what kind of event it is or to what larger class of things it might belong?
- Do people describe the part or structure of the phenomenon in different ways?
- Do persons name the event/phenomenon in different ways?
- Do people agree on how the event/phenomenon should be named, but disagree about how it should be defined? What accounts for these differing definitions?
- Have some stipulated a definition for the term that differs from its typical meanings?
- Is there disagreement about whether this phenomenon is a good or a bad thing?
- Are there disagreements about the seriousness or severity of the matter?
- Are there disagreements (for example) about the aesthetic, economic, political, psychological, biological, ethical, or historical value of the phenomenon in question?
- Are there disagreements about the virtue of the phenomenon (courage, honesty, care, commitment, faith, honor, etc.)?
- Do some believe that the phenomenon is better or worse than some alternative?
- Do persons reach contrasting judgments about the goodness, truth, rightness, appropriateness, etc. of the phenomenon at issue?
- Do people disagree about what should be done in response to the event/phenomenon? Are there disagreements about what policy or procedure is possible as a response?
- Is there disagreement about how the proposed actions will change or improve the state of affairs?
- Are there disagreements about whether the proposed actions will make thing better or worse—for whom, in what ways?
- Do people advocate for a policy to be enacted, while others advocate for leaving things well enough alone?
- Are there disagreements about the implementation of the policy or procedure?
The stases hold other advantages. They can orient you to the kinds of claims others have made, or the kind of claim you may wish to forge. In other words, you can use them to locate the claim you want to support in an argument: a claim about the existence of something, a claim about the definition of something, a claim about something’s value, or a claim about the nature of a procedure.
For an especially robust examination of the stases, please consult Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 5th Ed. Boston: Longman, 2011.