Joel Schellhammer

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It’s hot in the classroom. The rest of the class is focused on Mary Weld as she talks about street cleaning in Cambridge, but knowing that I’m up next, I can’t seem to focus. Squirming in my seat, I sense in my stomach that slightly nauseous feeling that always precedes public speaking. I’m determined not to let it snuff the adrenaline rush that comes from being put on the spot and asked to make your argument in front of a crowd. I assure myself that I’m used to this. I debated in for four years in college. I won a national championship. This, in comparison, should be a piece of cake, right?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. This time it’s different. This time, I’m not taking my opponents points and immediately subjecting them, execution style, to the rapid crossfire of my oppositional arguments. Instead, this time, I’ve been charged to unearth the heart of my opponent’s arguments. To immerse myself in the opposing points to the point where I don’t only know them, but I can feel them - functionally arguing them with the same degree of passion and fluidity as my opponent. This is completely different from any other kind of argument I’ve ever formally attempted. How did I get myself into this?

When I sat down for my first day of CyberOne, I had no idea that I would be reexamining the way I construct an argument. I expected instead a cursory review of the issues arising at the convergence of technology and the law. My experience over the past few months, however, has fundamentally changed how I think about conflicts, the way I construct arguments, and how I calibrate positions to reflect the intended audience. Before I discuss this in detail, however, I want to talk a little about my assignment.

I choose my project first because it was an issue literally close to home. As a life-long resident of Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Wind’s goal to erect wind turbines in Nantucket Sound affects the residents of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket more than perhaps any other demographic. Second, unlike many of the issues I considered, this was a conflict with two very distinctly divided groups: on one side, a collection of individuals who viewed the Cape Wind project as the best solution to the Cape’s energy needs, and on the other, a group of individuals who for a variety of reasons steadfastly opposed to the idea of installing 130 wind turbines in Nantucket sound. Talking to people on Martha’s Vineyard, I was amazed to encounter no one who was ambivalent about the project. While this frank division of opinion was interesting, however, it was also troublesome; on both sides of argument I noticed a palpably strong “win or lose” mentality. Instead of looking for constructive solutions or discussing ideas across the aisle, people seemed more interested in repressing the issue and talking only with those that agreed with them.

I was immediately intrigued by the idea of introducing empathic argument into this divide through the use of cybermedia. Here was an opportunity to focus people’s attention, not on their own arguments, but on the arguments of others first. Of course, to be truly effective, I would need to undergo this process myself. As an opponent of the Cape Wind project, I forced myself to embrace the other side. I wrote a short letter-to-the-editor type piece that sought to make the other side’s best arguments. It apparently stuck in my professor’s mind because he called on me and Mary Weld to be the first students to present our argument in oral form in front of the class. After giving my podcast, however, I was challenged by my professor. Was I really anticipating the arguments of the opposition and identifying with my audience? Although I defended my performance in class, the criticism forced me to examine my understanding of empathic argument. Was I really grasping the core of this new form of argument or was I merely disguising the type of oppositional argument that I knew all too well?

It wasn’t until a few days later when I stumbled upon the Confucian concept of ren while reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that I began to grasp the idea of empathic argument. In Chinese script, ren is composed of the signs for “human being” and “two”. It can thus be translated as “two-man-mindedness” or “consciousness of one’s fellow men.”

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Ren, which in English is poorly translated as conscience, is understood in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a moral faculty that unites people in “brotherhood” across cultural and religious barriers. Article 1 thus says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. This understanding of Ren suggests that it is this deeply rooted brotherhood that makes empathic argument possible. It also suggests that empathic argument is a form of argument intrinsically available for all humans. To achieve it, however, requires unification of your mindset with that of your opponent; a zen balance of intertwined argument.

With this refined concept of empathic argument guiding my way, I began to construct my final project. I knew I wanted to try my hand at a video-podcast but immediately decided against a project that served merely to present my point of view. Although likely unique in the larger Cape Wind debate and potentially useful because it would represent an empathic argument, such a project seemed too limited in scope. I wanted something larger, something that really had the potential to inject empathic argument into an already divided group. I thus decided to build a website employing a introductory video-podcast of my argument to make my position clear, but that also provided a steady stream of information relevant to both sides of the Cape Wind debate. By presenting information favorable to both sides of the argument in one place—something no other website was doing, side by side with my empathic argument—I hoped to foster a feedback loop of empathic argument that would slowly expand into the larger Cape Wind debate.

As yet, it’s unclear whether my project has been successful in infusing empathic argument into the debate about Cape Wind. As my website continues to aggregate information about Cape Wind and attracts more viewers, I hope that with my empathic argument as a guide, others will begin to recognize their common “brotherhood” and achieve the “two-man mindedness” possible of all men in conflict. Only by enabling those against Cape Wind to recognize and respect the position of those in favor of it can we hope to win our argument in the court of public opinion.