The Rhetoric of Nonviolent Activism: Why Does It Matter?

In my RBA, I use the term activist handbook to refer to resources that articulate a general framework for movement building, inspire activists with examples of specific tactics, and encourage activists to adhere to nonviolent strategies in their campaigns for regime change/revolution. Having analyzed a number of activist handbooks, I argue that educational materials for activists are effective in convincing people to use nonviolent tactics because they construct a logical appeal that emphasizes the strategic value of nonviolence. However, I also want to address the significance of these texts; is this logical appeal necessary to sustain an activist movement? I have concluded that examining how these texts persuade their readers to follow the principles of strategic nonviolent resistance is critical because campaign success and the subsequent transition to democracy are dependent upon these texts’ ability to convince all members of the movement to adhere to nonviolent tactics. This is because violent resistance, even when used by only a few members of an otherwise nonviolent movement, allows the regime to crack down on protestors. Additionally, long-term efforts to create a more democratic system may be more likely to succeed if activists develop the basic infrastructure of a transitional democratic government within their revolutionary movement.

The foundation of my argument is the idea that the government’s reliance on the cooperation of its citizens allows activists to compromise the regime’s power through nonviolent action. That said, certain aspects of nonviolent strategy might initially be counter-intuitive to many activists, which is evident when protestors get caught up in the moment and forget to craft a long-term plan for their movement. This is especially problematic in campaigns for regime change, because activists need to follow through (even after they have “won”) and replace the authoritarian system with a more just, open one. Having discussed these ideas, I will analyze the rhetoric of activist handbooks and use the framework I’ve build in my paper to discuss how the authors’ logical appeals are important to the success of activists’ campaigns and subsequent political changes.

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2 thoughts on “The Rhetoric of Nonviolent Activism: Why Does It Matter?”

  1. I think a good continuation of your research would be to address counter-arguments. Many groups feel like violence is the only way to get their message across? Are they wrong, or are there some instances in which more violent acts of activism are more effective?

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  2. I think this topic is really super interesting, because I hadn’t thought much before about how the rhetoric among activist circles is structured, and whose agenda that facilitates. One question that came up to me that might add nuance would be what qualifies as violence? For example, if protesters damage some private or corporate property, is that considered violence as well, and is there a place and time for that? Another question that came up to me was how rhetoric in activist handbooks and the like changes according to difference activist causes; how might the rhetoric of materials for the Black Lives Matter Movement differ from the rhetoric of materials for environmental movement?

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