Academic disciplinarity is an odd but useful thing. One of the roles it plays is to understand the world in terms of a particular set of theories within a particular body of knowledge. So everything is politics. Everything is history. Everything is rhetoric — which it really is, because, yeah, that’s my discipline 🙂
Why I bring this up on a bicycling blog is because we human beings understand and create the world based on how we talk about it. And as the great rhetoric scholar James A Berlin said: “Language is never innocent.” That means (and I agree) that there is no way to talk about something that isn’t interested or serving some kind of agenda. That’s neither good nor bad. It’s just the way it is with humans. So we understand and create the experience of driving a bicycle in traffic based upon how we talk about it.
I’m bringing this up because there’s an interesting discussion going on ahead of the I Am Traffic meeting in February about how to talk about what it is we’re talking about. There are two concerns as I see it. 1) Any group that would assert itself into a public conversation for particular purposes must establish or appropriate a language — what terms are acceptable and what do those terms actually indicate. 2) A group must do the rhetorical work of persuading the public that its terms are the most accurate and/or least misleading.
From my particular theoretical perspective, these concerns are always problematic because I believe Berlin is correct. Every word we use serves a purpose and a point of view. The question for me isn’t choosing accurate words, it’s how we persuade the public to accept our terms and how we use them.
Berlin’s idea is bothersome to many people — especially people in the so-called hard sciences or learned professions such as engineering or medicine in which accuracy is what keeps buildings standing or patients living.
But there is a very practical element to this theory I am espousing. Thinking critically about your terms — and your opponents’ terms — as rhetorical devices helps you understand the relationship between the words you use and getting what you want, i.e. creating a particular reality, the world as you would have it. Thinking this way gives you a control much greater than simply asserting claims of accuracy.
We at I Am Traffic are very interested in bicycling education and the role of bicyclists in traffic. So it is good that we are talking about what is is we are talking about. I will be sure to report on the language issues as they arise at the meeting. Until then, I’m not at liberty to disclose any of the discussion so far.