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Lester C. Olson

  • Professor
  • Chancellor’s Distinguished Teacher


  • PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Lester C. Olson holds a secondary appointment in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program. He is an Affiliate of the Cultural Studies Program and the Global Studies Program. He specializes in visual rhetoric, human rights rhetoric, and public address & argument. He joined the Collaboratory Against Hate when it was founded in spring 2021 because its work synthesizes many dimensions of his life’s work. As a gay Professor, Olson has moved through and around hatred for most of his life. He was not surprised but rather curious when he learned that the life expectancy for gay men is 8 to 12 years shorter than heterosexual male counterparts to judge from studies in the United States, Canada, and Britain. Factors include homicide rates, suicide rates, premature deaths from drug and alcohol abuse, HIV-AIDS, living alone, and, especially, extremely high levels of cortisol triggered from coping with stress, precarious living circumstances, and overt hostility. He began his intellectual labor learning about human rights frameworks more than thirty years ago during the depths of the AIDS pandemic, when, as an untenured Assistant Professor, he was asked by the Affirmative Action office of a major research University to support white women who were dealing with misogyny in the form of heterosexual, sexual harassment. In 1993, he began teaching a course on communication and human rights, which focused on the human rights ramifications of language, symbols, and specific communication practices, such as blaming the victim and constructing rhetorical devils. These two communication practices have more in common than one might initially suppose in that both communication practices deflect from the systemic, the institutional, and the cultural. He found that human rights frameworks offer aspirational ideals for political and academic activism across social differences, or intergroup relations. “Rights” are one good example of why attention to communication matters, not only in Communication, but to any disciplines, fields, or organizations that use language and symbols to intervene against extreme hatred. “Rights” frameworks have been changing over the decades such that the term no longer necessarily signals a political commitment to liberal individualism, especially since critical race theorists redefined rights as residing between or among people rather than within each person. Whether legal interventions should focus on “hate crimes” or “biases offenses” is another fine example, because the former focuses narrowly on animus and existing laws, while the latter encompasses animus plus calculating opportunism and showing off for peers in targeting members of stigmatized groups in broader conversations throughout society. The United Nations does not consider the systematic killing and abuse of LGBTQ people in Chechnya a “genocide,” even though the scale of these crimes against humanity would be a “genocide” were they committed against a racialized minority or religious group.

Olson’s current research focuses on Audre Lorde, an internationally acclaimed poet and activist. Olson’s essays concerning black lesbian feminist Lorde’s public advocacy can be found in the Quarterly Journal of Speech (1997, 1998 and 2011), Philosophy & Rhetoric (2000),  American Voices (2005), Queering Public Address (2007), The Responsibilities of Rhetoric (2010), The Literary Encyclopedia (2011), Standing in the Intersection: Feminist Voices, Feminist Practices in Communication Studies (2012), and Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies (2015). His award-winning books include Emblems of American Community in the Revolutionary Era (1991), Benjamin Franklin’s Vision of American Community (2004), and, with co-editors Cara A. Finnegan and Diane S. Hope, Visual Rhetoric (2007). He is a co-editor with Arabella Lyon of Human Rights Rhetoric: Traditions of Testifying and Witnessing (2012). In working for social justice, critical legal theorist and woman of color Mari Matsuda proposed a practice that she called “ask the other question.” In 1991, she advised, “When I see something that looks racist, I ask, ‘Where is the patriarchy in this?’ When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, ‘Where is the heterosexism in this?’ When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, ‘Where are the class interests in this?’” In agreement, Olson distrusts single-issue identity politics, which often reproduces unexamined biases across other social differences. A Chancellor’s Distinguished Teacher, Olson offers undergraduate courses and graduate seminars on Human Rights Rhetoric and Visual Rhetoric, as well as Communication & Social Differences.



Selected Essays


  • January 1, 2012 (All day): "Risks and Limitations of a Rhetorical Orientation to Human Rights" (with co-author Arabella Lyons). Seattle: Modern Language Association
  • January 1, 2012 (All day): National Communication Association for Teaching Tips on Teaching Rhetorical Criticism
  • January 1, 2015 (All day): "Audre Lorde's Transnational Sisterhood and the Black German Experience." Vancouver, British Columbia: Modern Language Association
  • December 10, 2015 - 5:00pm: Human Rights as Political Tools: An Interdisciplinary Conversation
  • April 26, 2016 - 12:00pm: "Rhetorical Re-circulation of ‘The Deplorable State of America, or Sc—h Government': Migration of a Political Print Series During the Stamp Act Controversy in 1765-66." Hong Kong: American Studies Conference
  • October 1, 2017 (All day): "Hillary Clinton, Democratic Formalism, and Colliding Human Rights." Dayton, OH, the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference
  • November 1, 2017 (All day): "Archiving History, Archiving Identity: Visual Culture and the Rhetorical Construction of History, Politics, and Subjects." Dallas, TX: National Communication Association
  • May 1, 2018 (All day): "The Rhetoric Society of America Fellows Remember: 50 Years in Retrospect." Minneapolis, Rhetoric Society of American Conference
  • May 1, 2018 (All day): Rhetoric Society of America Oral History Narrative, Minneapolis, MN

Courses Taught


  • Rhetorical Criticism (COMMRC 1123)
  • Rhetoric and Human Rights (COMMRC 1148)
  • Visual Rhetoric (CommRC 1160)


  • Rhetorical Criticism (COMMRC 2201)
  • Public Argument (Visual Rhetoric) (COMMRC 2214)