‘Uncivil Discourse’ frames Mountain Mining

This week, the mountains came to visit Grinnell students yearning for some peaks through the topic of Susan Hirsch’s convocation, “Mountains and Metaphors: Conflict over Mining in a Time of Uncivil Discourse.” Cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor, Susan Hirsch visited from the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Hirsch brought with her an impressive career in academia, receiving her B.A. in Anthropology from Yale and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Duke, then serving as a professor for 14 years at Wesleyan University in Conn. She is currently on the editorial board of the Law and Society Review and the American Ethnologist.

Hirsch discussed the importance of the language employed in discussions regarding conflicts, with a focus on the controversial industry of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. After explaining the devastating results that the actions of clearing timber, blowing up the earth and combing for coal produce in Appalachia, she focused on how the creation of metaphors often dominates the discourse in the political sphere, that which too often is polarizing and uncivil. Hirsch expounded upon how the principles of anthropomorphism—the attribution of human characteristics to nonhumans—have been used in the debate over mountaintop removal mining. She offered the example of actress Ashley Judd, who stated, “But the ache I feel for my mountain home is now more than a bittersweet nostalgia . . . [due to] the coal industry-operated rape of Appalachia mountaintop removal coal mining.” Hirsch reacted to the quote of Judd by stating that “while the metaphor of rape clearly gets our attention, it may distract us from the most important message.”

Hirsch extended her discussion by asking the audience, “How are we all implicated as bystanders?” as she cited the example of a nearby industry which sources its coal from mountaintop mining removal. She encouraged attendees to join the cause, stating, “I feel like we are all being drawn in [to join in the discourse regarding mountaintop mining].”

Hirsch emphasized that in order to move forward, humans “have to generate new metaphors for the future which will uproot the causes of conflict.” These new metaphors can hopefully foster a discussion which is, rather than dehumanizing or polarizing, civil and collaborative.