About Greg Dickinson, Ph.D.: Greg Dickinson is the Chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Colorado State University (CSU), where he oversees curriculum development, faculty hiring and support, and student advising for all undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate programs. Dr. Dickinson also oversees departmental funding and long-term strategic planning for the Department of Communication Studies. He and his colleagues regularly revisit courses to ensure that the content is updated consistently to reflect new developments in the communication discipline. When designing and updating curricula, he typically focuses on the questions, “Are we teaching the right classes and also organizing our undergraduate and graduate academic programs in a way that makes sense for the 21st century? How do we position ourselves within the university and in the world more broadly?” Prior to his position as Department Chair, he served as Interim Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies at CSU’s College of Liberal Arts. During his tenure at CSU, he has won the College of Liberal Arts Excellence in Teaching Award, as well as the CSU Alumni Best Teacher Award.
An avid scholar of the rhetoric of places and spaces, Dr. Dickinson investigates the ways in which modern architecture, public memorials, and the design of outdoor consumerist spaces both reflect and reinforce particular sociopolitical arguments. He is the author of Suburban Dreams: Imagining and Building the Good Life, and is coauthor of Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials and The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage. He has also published numerous articles about the places and spaces, the rhetorical arguments they make, and the historical and political significance of these messages. His scholarship has earned him numerous awards, including the NCA Golden Anniversary Monograph Award and the National Communication Association’s Gerald R. Miller Dissertation Award.
Dr. Dickinson earned his Bachelor of Arts in Speech Communication from Walla Walla University, his Master of Arts in Rhetoric and Communication from the University of California, Davis, and his Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of your professional and academic background? What are your responsibilities as Chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Colorado State University? What programs do you oversee, and how do you support students and faculty in the Department?
[Dr. Dickinson] I earned my bachelor of arts in Speech Communication from Walla Walla University, and subsequently moved to California to complete my master’s degree at UC Davis, within a department called Rhetoric in Communication, which no longer exists. While earning my degree from UC Davis, I lived in Berkeley. I then went to the University of Southern California and earned my Ph.D. at the Annenberg School for Communication. And it was during my time in California that I really started to get interested in the rhetoric of places and spaces. This began from my curiosity about how people made their way through Los Angeles, which was very different from where I’d grown up in Walla Walla, or even my time in Berkeley.
It was during the late 1980s and early 1990s that I moved to Los Angeles, near what was then called Korea Town, and is now called K-Town. And I had no idea how to live in this neighborhood. I was a white boy from Walla Walla and there weren’t a lot of me around. I wasn’t used to not being in the majority, and I also wasn’t used to some of the class issues and race issues that were present in the neighborhood in which I lived. From that experience, I began to ask questions about the built environment there, and how people made sense of their world. I was really curious, and wrote a dissertation on this–about how people mapped their meaning-making in a place like Los Angeles, a place that is so big and spread out it can feel almost placeless when compared to cities like San Francisco just to the north, where you can have a sense what its identity is, where its neighborhoods are.
From there, I began to really think hard about everyday places and our experiences in them, and how the built environment urges us to take on certain kinds of values or beliefs or attitudes. I translated these fundamental questions to studying the suburbs when I moved to Colorado. At the time, there was this housing bubble that was growing, and many people were buying homes in the suburbs. And again, I was curious about the visual and material resources the suburbs offered their audiences to convince them that the good life is in a suburban home. My questions and research operated on the assumption that people are choosing to live where they think they can make a good life–where they feel they can have the jobs they want to have, organize their families in ways they want to, manage their religious or spiritual lives in ways that make sense and are meaningful, and otherwise build a positive and constructive life. What are the rhetorical resources that convince people to join and/or build communities in the ways that they do? To be clear, I’m not asking primarily about symbolic measures. I do write about suburbia and a whole group of suburban films, such as The Truman Show and Pleasantville, and films like that that came out in ’80s and early ’90s that were trying to think about the suburb as well.
But primarily, I write about the actual built and lived-in environment. For example, I write about restaurants, such as Italian chain restaurants and the rhetoric of the spaces they create for their customers. I have also researched shopping spaces, what are called lifestyle centers–the kind of major shopping form that came after the shopping mall. In addition, I have researched megachurches, asking the question, “How does the megachurch frame the good life?” The megachurch is defined as a church with 3,000 people or more which is also functionally nondenominational. For example, it might be Baptist, but you can join and not claim Baptist as your religious faith. Megachurches are also devoted to consumer culture and popular culture, and have a very low cultural or spiritual entrance fee for their members. Megachurches are very entertainment-oriented, and they make the argument that religion serves the function of helping you live your everyday life. They don’t call for you to be fundamentally different, but rather find ways to have religion help you in your marriage, with your kids, and/or with your job.
From my studies, I’ve noticed that in a lot of social contexts, the idea of the “good life” is devoted to heteronormativity: it is devoted to the idea of a family comprised of a heterosexual man and woman with two children. It’s devoted to shopping at malls, having big cars and big houses. Something I discovered in my research is that the “good life” in America demonstrates this real commitment a very individual sense of meaning. It also argues that meaning happens in the family, and that meaning happens through the self, and through individualism. The idea of, “I create and communicate my own meaning to myself and others through the objects that I buy, through the coffee that I drink, through the lifestyle I design for myself.” And within this definition of the suburban good life, there aren’t other kinds of group-oriented, social movement-oriented sorts of meanings that we might have found in other places at other times. That became the basis of my book Suburban Dreams: Building and Imagining the Good Life.
Within my research, I spend a lot of time thinking about memory. And I talk about the ways in which the past is drawn on in these suburbs. In particular, images of the past are drawn on in suburban settings to provide a sense of safety and community. For example, there is a suburban development called Surprise in Arizona, and its logo is an old-fashioned windmill from the early 1910s and 1920s. In fact, they installed a windmill in one of the major corners of the development, and the image of the windmill shows up on little bits of stone around the development, as well as on the fences. I write about the wooden fences that are built into the brick of the buildings, and how the houses have semi-Italian Mediterranean forms that come, very vaguely, from the Renaissance.
In the chapter I wrote about this, I argued that these visual features built into the very structures attempt to enmesh people in a warmly remembered past. The symbol of the windmill, the nostalgic elements of the architecture, are both visual and material elements that ground residents in a sense of time and space. This suburb is in the middle of the desert. There was nothing Anglo-American about this space and its history. There were Native Americans who traversed the land for centuries, but the Anglo-American presence in this region was, relatively speaking, brand new. The white American people who decided to move into this space wanted to have a sense of where they were, their own historical trajectory relative to this space, and the trajectory of people like them. Without that sense of time and space, people can feel lost. So what suburbs try to do in such cases is create an artificial sense of communal history. Whether it’s in Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Denver, what the suburbs attempt to do is create brand new versions of the past that also have some reference to the local space.
So in the case of Surprise, Arizona, the designers wanted to evoke the sense of, “Here’s a windmill that signals that maybe we used to farm here. Even though people almost certainly did not farm a whole lot in that part of Arizona, as a white American resident I nevertheless feel like I’m part of a pastoral community (pastoral meaning land that has been developed for productive use by humans).” This notion of the pastoral in the suburbs is very old. When suburbs first started in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were marketed to families as the opportunity to get out of the city, have a little garden, live that kind of yeoman farmer life that was offered to us by people like George Washington and the other Founding Fathers who were thinking about democracy in the United States. The rhetoric of the past becomes really important and it gets built into the environment. Fences, housing developments, lifestyle centers–all of these spaces try to look like some version of history as a way to ground and reassure their visitors and inhabitants.
Let me give you another example. I live in Fort Collins, which has an Old Town Historic District. The designer for Disney’s Main Street (the one in California, not the one in Florida) grew up in Fort Collins. And he used Fort Collins–this little town where I live in northern Colorado–as the model for Disney’s Main Street. The goal of Disney’s Main Street is to evoke happy feelings of nostalgia and well-being, and to reinforce the idea that Disney’s parks are “The Happiest Place(s) on Earth,” as the trademark saying goes. More recently, a lifestyle center called Centerra was built just south of Fort Collins in a little town called Loveland, and this center looks remarkably like Disney’s Main Street. So here you have architects and designers trying to conjure feelings of happiness and connection to the spaces they build, by leveraging the nostalgic rhetoric of “historical” places and spaces. Centerra’s message to visitors is, “We’re not the big corporate Mall of America in Minneapolis, or any of those other malls that are unsentimental blocks of concrete and metal. We are offering the chance to return to a different, quainter time in our past.” And to accomplish this kind of messaging, it pulled from the visual rhetoric of Disney’s Main Street, which itself drew its nostalgic qualities from the Historic District of Fort Collins.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are the co-author of the book The Twitter Presidency, which examines the way in which President Trump’s rhetoric, particularly in the form of Twitter posts, enabled him to leverage the power of certain social movements and sentiments before and during his presidency. May we have more information on the principal arguments of this book, and how it has influenced the field of political communication scholarship (as well as mass and social media scholarship)?
[Dr. Dickinson] When I got my master’s degree, I wrote about presidential rhetoric, specifically about the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra Affair. And then for years, I turned my efforts to other research, such as the aforementioned suburb narrative and how it’s embodied in materials and structures and spaces. I was also focused on the research that is soon to be published in my book The Places of Public Memory.
But then, Trump got elected. When I was writing about presidential rhetoric in the 1980s, I was writing about Ronald Reagan, and so I found myself asking similar questions regarding Trump’s rhetoric. I wanted to figure out, “Why are people compelled by images or people and rhetoric that I find offensive?” This paralleled my motivation for studying suburbs as well, because I find suburbs offensive personally, and yet I assume that their residents are making good choices for themselves, and wanted to better understand the why of that. Similarly, I was not a fan of Ronald Reagan, and I found much of what he was doing to be troubling. And the same is true with Trump, for me. I was motivated by a desire to try and figure out–assuming that people are making choices that make sense to them–what their process of sense-making is, and how they arrive at the conclusions that they do.
The thing that struck me about Trump was that a lot of my friends would say, “Well, he’s illogical. He’s not making good arguments.” And I said to myself, so the solution is to make a better argument, right? But we have found that that doesn’t really work. It’s fascinating, but making a better argument almost always does not work. So I thought that Trump must be compelling people not through reasoned argument, but through some other avenue. He does not use the typical structure of, “Here is my thesis, and here is my data, and here is how the data connects to the thesis.” The kinds of argumentation we teach in school–that is not in his repertoire. So the question is, “In the absence of traditional and rational argumentation, what makes him so compelling?” And that was the question that Brian had too. He is a rhetorician who is interested in media and mediated forms. And in particular, he was very interested in Twitter. We both had an interest in non-symbolic modes by which people communicate with each other or persuade each other.
Through my research, I began to conclude that what Trump was doing was appealing to our emotions around racism and sexism, and that he was doing so in a way that didn’t use argumentation, and therefore could not be addressed by argumentation. What Trump does instead is appeal to our affect. Using statements implying that black people are like this, or immigrants are like this, or women are like this, or whatever group he is assailing on a given day is how he believes them to be. He’s appealing to people’s emotional relationship to race and sex, a relationship that is hundreds of years old here in the United States. Brian and I developed a concept called the Aesthetics of White Rage, which we used to try and explain why this rhetoric has been so compelling and why it has been so successful for certain aims.
By working at an affective level, opponents cannot easily counter such rhetoric with logic. Affective responses are immediate emotional responses that are built up from layers of assumptions we have, which are also reinforced by our experiences. It is similar to the Disneyland example we discussed earlier, where Disneyland is designed to have people think as they navigate the space, “Oh, this feels quaint and wonderful!”–The Happiest Place on Earth. While as a critical consumer you could start processing why you have that response, that doesn’t change the fact that you have this almost immediate embodied response. Trump’s rhetoric on the Twitter side and during his political rallies drives out those deeply embodied, socially held emotional relationships to race and to sex in America. A large portion of us are, whether we admit it or not, racist. We are born into a racist world and drink the water of racism and we respond to it in the ways we have been conditioned by our environment to respond.
Brian’s and my book really tries to address the ways in which this style of Trump’s communication–both his spoken style and the written style of Twitter–triggers or pushes forth this Aesthetic of White Rage. The way his rhetoric looks, the way it sounds, capitalizes on the long-held traditions of white rage that have been present throughout American history. By white rage, I am referring to the sense of anger that some white people have at any moment they think their privilege will be even slightly questioned or broken down–there is an almost immediate rageful response to that. And that is what Trump’s rhetoric leveraged and embodied in powerful and troubling ways.
When you think about the ways he’s responded to the coronavirus, you can see his specific form of rhetoric at work as well. He wants to make sure that his audience hears how, “The terrible Chinese folks in labs produced this and that, that the virus’ spread in the U.S. is their fault and not the result the White House’s mismanagement.” In this scenario, Trump is also appealing to our sense of racism and xenophobia.
Brian and I also talk about how it is not just the content but also the style and structure of Trump’s rhetoric that makes it impactful. During his political speeches, there is an anger that comes out of his body that our bodies respond to, be that response one of disgust or one of intense agreement with his messaging. In Twitter, there is a shortness and snappiness to his messages that is reactive, simplistic, aggressive, and angry. Twitter is conducive to that kind of rhetoric–due to the character limits, Twitter is not a place where we do complex thinking or have thoughtful, nuanced discourse. As a result, Twitter’s abbreviated messaging has become part of Trump’s own aesthetic. And through Twitter, Trump has been able to disseminate content that is anti-woman, misogynistic, anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-any other from heteronormative whiteness. All of these forms of prejudiced rhetoric are woven together, which is what makes his rhetoric so dangerous, and so antidemocratic.
Brian and I in our book are quite clear from the beginning and especially at the end that our affective response to Trump’s rhetoric is one of disgust. And interestingly enough, what got me started on this line of research was my own affective response to Trump–my aversive affective response. I did not want to hear his messages, and not in a rational way but in a deeply embodied way–my stomach would clench and I would feel nauseous. And I thought, “Well, that could be happening for somebody else, but in a positive way. Someone could be reacting with, ‘Oh, I love that. Finally, somebody affirms the way I feel. Somebody is letting me feel the anger that I’ve been stewing on for so long.’” And if you can get the right percentage of people to respond in that way, then you don’t have to be reasonable because rationality has nothing to do with it. I freely admit that I do not have a rational response to Trump either. It’s important to me as an individual to be compassionate towards people who are different from me, and what he does really harms my own sense of wanting to be compassionate and connected.
And that has fostered the divisiveness we see in our sociopolitical landscape, where people are wholeheartedly committed to being pro-Trump or committed to being anti-Trump. What we can learn from all this is that when we make political decisions, we’re doing so to some extent out of our passions. Those of us who study communication have known from time immemorial that reason is part of how we make decisions. But just as influential in our decision-making process are our passions and our affective responses. While having passion influence our choices and our actions is not necessarily bad, it does mean that we need to think about what those passions are, and to investigate the ethics around those emotions.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to The Twitter Presidency, may we also have more information on your book Place of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials, which you co-authored with Dr. Brian L. Ott and Dr. Carole Blair, as well as the research articles you have published on the role of museums and historical artifacts in shaping historical and political messages?
[Dr. Dickinson] The book Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials is the result of a collaboration between Brian Ott, Carol Blair, and myself. Carol was a faculty member at UC Davis when I was there in the master’s program. And she was just starting a project on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in the 1980s. The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial really kicked off a new effort in the United States to memorialize key eras and figures in our history. If you look at the history of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., there is a long break between the building of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial, etc. and the creation of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Since then, there’s been a building boom, with the construction of the Martin Luther King Memorial, the FDR Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial.
This increase in the building of memorials indicated a new interest in memorialization of the U.S. And around the same time, there were numerous scholars across the social sciences and humanities who were interested in memory and its sociopolitical functions. They asked questions such as, “What is the difference between memory and history?” Carol, Brian, and I started writing about memorials. In particular, Carol has written extensively on memorials and memory-making on a national scale in the U.S. She has also done research on the memorialization of World War One and cemeteries in Europe.
Meanwhile, Brian and another colleague Erik Aoki and I began visiting the Buffalo Bill Center of the West up in Cody, Wyoming. And we were working on studying the impact of memory and museums. The article “Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum” and the book Places of Public Memory were really the products of more and more of us in communication studies writing in collaboration with scholars of sociology and anthropology on the meaning behind memorials, museums, and the memories they convey to the public. Carol, Brian, and I pulled together a collection of original essays on memorials and museums, essays that try to explore the ways in which a memorial site could draw on or create a particular set of memories for the purpose of doing social or political work today.
If you think about the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, you could think of it as being about the Vietnam War. And on some level, of course it is about that, but at the same time it was also built to convey particular concepts and values to the people of the 1980s and future generations, to prompt them to think about the Vietnam War and what we ought to do with our memory of it, today and into the future. Our running argument in the book is while memory’s subject matter is the past, its purpose is the present and the future–to help us understand who we are today and who we ought to be in the future. We argue that the function of memory is to understand and analyze our present, and to figure out our future.
The other thing about memory is that it often finds itself located in place. Certainly speeches can call upon memory, and films can be nostalgic or about the past, but one of the things that we found and which we explain in the book is that people want to create physical sites of memory. There is a long tradition of this that spans thousands of years, but there is particularly a strong post-World War Two tradition of this. In Europe, the U.S., and other places in the world there has been a movement to build places of memory. Our concern was both to think about memory as a rhetorical instrument, a thing that urges us to understand something about ourselves, but also as something that can help us better understand how places and environments are built.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are also a co-producer of the ACT Human Rights Film Festival, in collaboration with Scott Diffrient, Carol Busch, and the CSU Department of Communication Studies. May we have more details on this project, including its mission and impact on the community?
[Dr. Dickinson] My colleagues Scott Diffrient, Carol Busch, the CSU Department of Communication Studies, and myself developed and currently run the ACT Human Rights Film Festival because we believe that communication can make a significant difference in our everyday lives in a myriad of ways. The ACT Human Rights Film Festival urges us to think about how films can engage us on questions of values, in particular around human rights writ large. We were supposed to host our fifth year of the festival this April of 2020, but we couldn’t because of COVID-19. I really hope we are able to host the festival next year.
We bring in films from around the world, and they are almost always documentaries, but not always. We also invite the film producers and film participants to discuss what the goal of their project was and what their experiences were in developing the film. We’ve had films about workers’ rights in China, and we’ve featured a lot of films and hosted a lot of discussions on Native Americans’ experiences, history, and contemporary struggles in this country. We have also featured films on the environment, and a number of films about disability and accessibility. There was one beautiful film we had last year, for example, which was about a young man who was deaf and learning to play Moonlight Sonata with his grandparents. So within the diversity of the films we offer, the common thread is our really thinking of human rights broadly, and asking filmmakers and our audience, “What are the barriers to humans flourishing and what are the ways in which people are struggling against those barriers?”
We bring the director and/or an expert about that subject of the film to have a conversation with the audience afterwards for 15 to 20 minutes, after which we connect the film and that conversation to a local nonprofit partner, whom we call our “call to action” partners. If somebody feels inspired by the film and thinks, “I really want to know more about Native American artistic practices and the ways in which they are flourishing in Minnesota and illustrating the Native American experience, here is an organization that I can get involved with.” We host the Festival on campus as well as at a little art house theater here in town off-campus. We bring non-university people onto the university campus for the first time, and we’re getting university people to the art house theater to help the small theatre survive. Last year, we hosted well over 2,000 people across our films.
In addition to the Act Human Rights Film Festival, we are also involved in The Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University, which trains what are known as undergraduate deliberation associates. The Center for Public Deliberation actually helps local government within Fort Collins, and other organizations around the Colorado front range here north of Denver, to enact democracy. We bring citizens together to have reasonable conversations and to improve public communication. These conversations lead to actual policy, and it’s part of what I call engaged communication scholarship: scholarship that engages with communities and the questions that these communities have.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What are the distinctions and overlaps between historical communication, political communication, and the communication of public spaces (i.e. messages relayed through public monuments, museums, buildings, etc.)? What is the relationship between human landscapes and the shape of a society’s democracy?
[Dr. Dickinson] This is such a good question and in fact we’ve been dancing around this precise point. So if we just stay with Trump for a moment, and his “Make America Great Again” slogan–that is a perfect example of the drawing on an imagined past to make a version of an “ideal” future. The “Again” referred to in this statement is referencing some previous time when America was great, but that time never gets defined in that particular rhetoric.
One of the things I’ve been trying to accomplish through my research is to think about how the places in which we live and the places we visit move us in ways that are hard for us to nail down immediately because they’re so embodied and not immediately or obviously symbolic. It’s like writing about dancing–it’s just a really hard thing to do. But thinking about the ways in which we bring our past into our current moment and our plans for the future is incredibly important interpersonally, politically, and economically. There is a geographer who talks about space-time, which refers to our drawing on our past and bringing our past into our current moment. In our conversation now, we are bringing our experiences growing up in certain spaces, interacting with certain people, and learning certain values to our discussion. And yet we’re also imagining a future that is also impacting what we are saying right now. With the upcoming elections, the exact same types of conversations are underway, wherein people are trying to think through, “How do we draw on our pasts, and indeed what pasts do we draw upon? How do we frame those pasts? Whose stories get included in that past, and whose stories get excluded? How can and should these collective histories inform our plans for the future?”
We can’t imagine a future without thinking about our past. Politics are about the future, right? They’re about, “Who are we going to become?” And if who we are going to become is some perverted image of who we were in the past–there is something wrong with that, from my perspective. So if I were to preach a sermon stemming from the conclusions in my own research, the sermon would be something along the lines of, “How do we draw on other versions of our past? Tell those stories differently so we can imagine a more humane, future?” A future filled with people different from each other who flourish and flourish because they’re different from each other, rather than a future that is restricted to just one way of being, and one way of acting.
Thank you, Dr. Greg Dickinson, for your excellent insight into the rhetoric of history, memory, memorials, and place, and their impact on our sociopolitical future. It was a privilege speaking with you about your research!