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Should You Be Telling the Truth Like Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, or Dewey Short?

Image by Siebuhr via Flickr. Image by Siebuhr via Flickr.

At some point, each and every one of us is outnumbered. At any given gathering, you're as likely as not to be the only vegan, capitalist, Jew, Red Sox fan, single mother, traditional Catholic, or Southerner in attendance. Most of the time, such differences are incidental to the larger social or professional goals of the group and are easily accommodated within the esprit de corps.

But for many college students, this feeling of being the odd man out is a constant companion. For conservative college students, the sense of alienation from professors and peers—even the notion that your views are held in hostility and contempt by friends and teachers—has the tendency to become a perennial thorn in the flesh. It is one thing to be the only left-handed bowler in the Friday night league. It is quite another to be the only supporter of traditional marriage in a freshman sociology seminar at UC Berkeley. The ancient Chinese described this state of being vastly outnumbered as “hearing the enemy singing from all four directions.” Given the overwhelming one-sidedness of most college campuses these days, it is little wonder that those of a nonliberal bent feel as though the walls are closing in.

What is to be done?

One option, of course, is silence. If a professor makes a disparaging remark about, say, Ronald Reagan, it is certainly possible to keep your head down and continue taking notes. Indeed, there is much to recommend this approach. It is far better, after all, to understand what the professor is actually trying to say, and the arguments that he or she is trying to present, than to fly off the handle at the mere mention of one’s pet subject in anything other than a reverential tone. Respectfully allowing others to have their full say can be a very good thing.

But at some point, once it becomes clear that a professor or a friend is saying something egregiously biased, logically inconsistent, or patently untrue, it will be time to speak up.

Let us say you are in a large lecture hall. The teacher begins to compare Scott Walker to Hitler. (Would that this were only a hypothetical case, but Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recently took to Twitter to do just that.) Your hand goes up, perhaps against your better judgment. The professor looks up and acknowledges you. Now what?

To my mind, there are three broad rhetorical styles you could adopt in such a situation, styles as old as rhetoric itself but that have been employed unmistakably by three American public figures. That is to say, when you raise your hand in a crowded lecture hall and are about to make some pronouncement to a probably unsympathetic audience, you will likely find yourself using at least some of the rhetorical strategies perfected by Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, or Dewey Short.

You will almost certainly be familiar with the first two writers. Walker Percy was a Catholic novelist based in small-town Covington, Louisiana, who buried his moral compass deep within his multifaceted prose. Those who search Percy’s most popular works for explicit Catholicism or social conservatism—works such as The Moviegoer and The Second Coming—will have to be very perceptive indeed to find it. There are no stentorian voices in Percy books. There are asides, half-formed thoughts, second glances, unexamined intentions, and fleeting regrets, but little in the way of gong banging and klieg lighting, and even less of overt didacticism.

In later quasi-nonfiction books like The Message in the Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos, Percy lays out this method of code talking, avowing that modern man, thoroughly besotted with his own modernism, is not able to receive the fullness of truth unmediated. If a writer wishes to convey a nonrelativist position, according to Percy, then he must conceal it within the bracken of confusion, misdirection, and strategic obfuscation. Peter Kreeft has expounded on Percy’s studied coyness, likening his approach to the work of secret agents. For Kreeft, Percy is probably correct in saying that modern man is so far removed from the religious culture of his forebears that smuggling in truth is preferable to shocking his system with too large and undiluted a dose all at once.

Playing your hand close to your vest, then, is a very Walker Percy way of engaging the campus left.

Flannery O’Connor, on the other hand, while also a Catholic novelist, was in many ways the opposite of Walker Percy. O’Connor, who spent most of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia, relished drawing what she called “large, startling figures” and putting them in situations in which the full force of grace, in all of its terrible glory, overwhelms her characters. O’Connor often worked in metaphors and allegories, to be sure, but the thrust of her oeuvre is unmistakable. With the devastating power of framing and plot, O’Connor allowed her large, startling figures to make every conceivable mistake, thus obliquely engaging opposing arguments. In the end, those characters were literally skewered by the ineluctable truth, as in “Greenleaf,” or found it pulsating in the sky, as in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” O’Connor was not polemical, she was merely patient and relentless. She stated her points as plainly as any fiction writer ever has, and then left the reader to decide for himself where he stood.

While Percy and O’Connor are well known even decades after their respective deaths, the third rhetorical model mentioned above, Missouri Congressman Dewey Short, is almost completely forgotten today. This is unfortunate, because Short was one of the most gifted orators of the twentieth century and also one of the last high-minded fashioners of bombastic American political discourse. If Percy is esoteric and O’Connor dramatically umbrated, Dewey Short is refreshingly and gratuitously undiplomatic.

Short, who is known today mainly for his biting criticisms of the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration, had the rare ability to accentuate his command of facts with cannonades of withering rhetorical fire. To take perhaps the most famous instance of his flair for flame, in 1935 Short took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to deliver himself of barbed verbosity:

I deeply and sincerely regret that this body has degenerated into a supine, subservient, soporific, superfluous, supercilious, pusillanimous body of nitwits, the greatest ever gathered beneath the dome of our National Capitol, who cowardly abdicate their powers . . . to a group of tax-eating, conceited autocratic bureaucrats, a bunch of theoretical, intellectual, professorial nincompoops out of Columbia University . . . who were never elected by the American people to any office and who are responsible to no constituency.

The Dewey Short approach to pushing back against the onslaught of professorial leftism on college campuses is a high-wire act, and is probably much more likely to earn a student a failing grade than it is to win converts, owing to its sheer audacity. Short was a master; anything less than mastery would certainly lead to rhetorical ruin, so he is not recommended for those just beginning to flap their conservative wings on college campuses.

The pattern that emerges from these three rhetorical styles may seem to be one of progression,but there is something much deeper at work than mere rhetorical posturing: namely, the truth, which should be allowed to come through as best suits itself. In the service of the truth, sometimes we whisper, planting seeds of contemplation; sometimes we hold forth openly, engaging with our interlocutors with the nobility of honest vulnerability; and sometimes—very rarely, yes, but sometimes—we best serve truth by letting it toss its mane back and roar, a la, for example, Dewey Short.

This image of the truth as a lion able to defend itself—taken from a quote attributed variously to St. Augustine and Pastor Charles Spurgeon—leaves the truth teller with a deep peace. How freeing that the truth does not depend on us or our opinions of it in order to remain true! You need only speak it after its own fashion and the truth itself will take care the rest. Indeed, to speak the truth is to profess, tacitly, a second truth: that every human being is made to know the truth and that true community begins only when truth is commerce among a group’s members.

Therefore, even vastly outnumbered conservative college students can take heart. By speaking the truth in public, whether obscurely like Percy, forthrightly like O’Connor, or outlandishly (use sparingly!) like Short, you are helping to turn the tide of postmodern anticommunal cultural atomization. It may not be too long, perhaps, before a community of truth springs up and the feeling of being outnumbered begins to give way, allowing the truth in all things to roam free.

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