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In the course of the Thomas-Hill hearings on allegations of sexual harassment, Professor Anita Hill engaged consistently in communicational activities that we might characterize as direct exchange. She concentrated, that is, on doing what was expected of her at the hearings, according to all the explicit rules of communication and implicit "taken-for-granteds" (Hopper, 1981) for that situation. Asked a question, she answered it directly. Challenged by a follow-up to her response, she attempted to meet the challenge directly. What she did not do was go meta.(1)
Consider by contrast Judge Clarence Thomas' behavior at the hearings. In his opening statement Thomas sought to place the hearings themselves in question: "This is not American. This is Kafkaesque. It has got to stop." Then he let his questioners know which questions he would answer and which questions he considered out of bounds. "I am here specifically to respond to allegations of sex harassment in the workplace....I will not allow this committee or anyone else to probe into my private life." In his second statement, Thomas found new ways to castigate the hearings: a "circus," a "national disgrace," a "high-tech lynching." Thereupon he proceeded to inform the committee that he had chosen not to listen to Anita Hill's testimony: "No I didn't: I've heard enough lies." Admonished by Senator Heflin for not listening to the testimony and thus denying himself a chance to refute it, Thomas challenged Heflin's premise: "Senator, I am incapable of proving the negative." Only after Thomas had engineered a reframing of the committee hearings did he deign to respond directly to questions, and even then he maintained nonverbally the persona of the beleaguered victim.
This essay is in two parts: Definition and Political Applications. The first section offers a general introduction to the concept of "going meta," further explicating the term and, in the process, providing brief illustration of its far-reaching applications to the study of rhetoric and communication.
The second section focuses exclusively on televised political confrontations, such as the Thomas-Hill hearings. In these high stakes, high visibility encounters, going meta requires of political actors that they engage in a rhetorical balancing act, pivoting on the high wire of perceived legitimacy. While ordinary interactants frequently go meta for cooperative purposes -- for example, as a way of advancing consideration of a question, or as a form of intellectual play -- in political confrontations allusions to common interests and to the need for cooperation are generally a tissue-thin guise for the pursuit of competitive power advantages. Not always is going meta a matter of great significance, but, as one looks back on recent presidential debates or televised political hearings, for example, it is striking how often "meta-moves" from these events are what get sound-bited on the evening news, and even remembered many years later. The second section should provide a clearer sense of the rhetorical art of going meta.