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Institutions as Rhetorical Constructs

Although we tend to think of institutions as monoliths, they are rhetorical constructs that people create (Porter, Sullivan, Blythe, Grabill and Miles 619). That is to say, institutions and their constraints can change only as we—stakeholders, customers, service professionals, citizens, patients, tenants, managers, owners—change. But this is far easier said than done. Martha Nussbaum has noted that "an ethics of impartial respect for human dignity will fail to engage real human beings unless they are made capable of entering imaginatively into the lives of distant others and to have emotions related to that participation" (qtd. in Lauritzen 23) Rules and propositions do not often move us, especially, on behalf of those who are not like us. It is a difficulty of imagination.

But narratives have the power to implicate readers, to draw us out of the narcissistic enclosure of the ego in ways that more conventional point-driven argument does not. Richard Kearney cites the importance of Holocaust narratives. Holocaust survivors felt an ethical imperative to make others participate so that the horrors of the Holocaust wouldn't be repeated.

Certain injustices appeal to narrative imagination to plead their case lest they slip irrevocably into oblivion. Ethical experiences of good and evil, as Nussbaum says, need to be felt upon the pulse of shared emotions. Or as Ricoeur says, commenting on narratives of the Holocaust, the horrible must strike the audience as horrible. It must provoke us to identify and empathize with the victims. (Kearney 43)

The examples that Kearney draws upon make clear the ability of an experiential narrative to allow us to be impacted by a distant other. But that premise holds true whether we're talking about something with the gravity of the Holocaust or—as West reminds us—the way that an institution or public policy plays out in daily life.

The phrase "public policy" implies that such policy is more public than private. But there's much about public policy that is often hidden from view. For instance, as Crick and Gabriel note, enacting public policy is not usually a decision point in itself but rather the reflection of decisions already made - and ones perhaps more private and less publicly available than the official policy. Policies that are made public by government organizations or other institutions monitor, govern, and regulate the spaces and terms under which our private lives intersect with institutions. Public policies stem from our interactions with other individuals—even ones we might consider private—where some part of our interaction falls under the perceived jurisdiction of an institution (Cushman 47). This is true whether we're talking about the use of public parks or tenant-landlord agreements or welfare-to-work rights. Public spheres theorists have most often framed public life starting from the point that an idea moves from private to public, but tensions between private and public knowledge exist at every point within the arc of a controversy, and we need different kinds of private knowledge to inform public conversations at different points within the trajectory.

These are the very tensions we would suggest that the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Contributors speak about in their literacy narratives. That is, as they talk about literacy learning, they are also talking about their encounters with the policies of government-regulated service industries, of schools, of religious organizations. These institutions are more obviously public. But the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Contributors also speak about their family lives, for example, experiences often inextricable from more obviously institutional encounters. This intersection between the public and private isn't exclusive to literacy learning or Deaf Culture, but this set of literacy narratives gives us a test case to learn more about this complex intersection and its implications for how we learn to listen for shared, yet-to-be public concerns.

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