For the last thirty years, rhetoric has extoled the virtues of civic engagement while composition has highlighted the rewards associated with public writing pedagogies. In response to these trends, my dissertation interrogates some of the vices of the public sphere and the risks associated with entering it in order to temper idyllic conceptions of publicness and provide a more balanced view of contemporary public discourse. In so doing, I join a small but growing set of compositionists interested in the public’s capacity for violence and demagoguery. This group has grown in large part due to the current political climate in which unintended consequences, harassment, and narcissism are increasingly prevalent. My dissertation studies these three risks, claiming they are inherent to rhetoric’s transformational capacity. Building on this position, I end with a call for event-based pedagogies focused on navigating the risks of the public sphere.

The first risk I examine is unintended consequences. Following the work of Jenny Rice and Laurie Gries, I describe how meaning emerges through the interactions of multiple human and nonhuman actors that transcend the immediate rhetorical situation of the rhetor and often usurp her intentions. I study the founding of the Crips in 1969 after the fall of the Black Panther Party as a case study for how texts can grow to have meanings and effects beyond what their authors conceived. Raymond Washington reportedly created the Crips as a way to stop neighborhood gang violence, but after his imprisonment, the organization became one of the largest street gangs in the United States. This irony demonstrates how meanings and consequences beyond the rhetors’ control emerge through public distribution and circulation.

The second risk I analyze is harassment. Following Kevin Deluca, Michael Warner, and Byron Hawk’s respective work on the social dimensions of publicness, I argue that harassment is a powerful tool of public engagement, used to create social hierarchies in which some opinions, perspectives, and bodies are given room to speak while others are denied that right. For a case study, I examine the bullying tactics used by the alt-right. The radically conservative populist movement utilizes both digital and analog versions of harassment to silence their opponents, push their various agendas, and create a social hierarchy in which their predominantly white male members have the most influence. The harms endured by the targets of alt-right campaigns demonstrate the prominence of harassment within contemporary public discourse.

The final risk I explicate is narcissism. Pulling theories of language from Kenneth Burke, Fredrick Nietzsche, and Patricia Roberts-Miller, I argue that publics often function as mirrors that reflect their members’ beliefs back to them. These reflective echo chambers reinforce ideologies and prevent members from engaging other perspectives and seeing the limitations of their own beliefs. As a case study, I study the Promethean rhetoric of the techno-utopian leftist accelerationists, a movement that claims to desire a revival of progressive Marxism but dismisses traditional leftist concerns that do not align with their ideology. The accelerationists’ penchant for crafting insular arguments demonstrates the narcissistic risk of ideological infatuation.

Taken together, these case studies demonstrate the ways in which public discourse operates as an event—a moment of interaction that transforms rhetors, audiences, and texts who in turn transform the publics, cultures, and worlds in which they exist. Because it is transformative, rhetoric is ultimately unpredictable and risky. Acknowledging this, I advocate for event-based pedagogies that stress the need to closely consider the possible effects of rhetoric, while acknowledging that complete certainty is impossible. Event-based pedagogies acknowledge both the positive and negative ethical implications of rhetoric and stress the values of volition, openness, preparation, bricolage, and adaptation within the composition classroom.