All posts by lizj657

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.


Feedback on the Rhetoric of the Activist Handbook

My infographic can be found here.

My work analyzes the rhetoric of materials that educate nonviolent activists. A large portion of my research proposal is a literature review that traces how existing texts in the field respond to one another. Many scholars of nonviolence have documented that nonviolent campaigns are far more effective than their violent counterparts, even in cases where the campaigns advocate for regime change/revolution. In my work going forward, I hope to clarify that I am not just writing a paper that builds a case for nonviolent campaigns–this has already been done by a number of scholars. Instead, I am looking at how their research is made accessible to activists who are actually doing the organizing work. Many people asked me if I’d be providing examples of successful nonviolent movements to support the assertion that nonviolence is effective. However, this is not exactly my goal, as outlining the value of strategic nonviolence is only the foundation of my project, not the project itself. That said, I could look at how these handbooks present various anecdotes and examples, which would adhere to my topic while also answering some of my audience’s questions.

Because my project is largely a rhetorical analysis, Shannon suggested that I discuss the authors’ choices to emphasize the strategic value of nonviolence as an “appeal to logic.” This helped me organize my infographic around three main goals of an activist handbook. Because I found the appeal to logic to be the most impactful in motivating people to use nonviolent strategies, I added an additional infographic section about how the appeal to logic was constructed. My tentative thesis is that these activist handbooks are effective in convincing people to use nonviolent tactics because they construct a logical appeal that emphasizes the strategic value of nonviolence. Going forward, I hope to contextualize this within the other objectives of the texts, such as correcting misconceptions or providing a toolkit to activists, which will likely give me a more nuanced understanding of the authors’ rhetorical choices.

Potential Research Topics: Language Inclusivity, Nonviolent Rhetoric, and “Abolishing Capitalism”

1: Many queer activist communities adopt certain norms surrounding language inclusivity, such as introducing yourself to people with your gender pronouns or not assuming that others date people of a certain gender. Why is this language important? The use of inclusive language is characterized by an avoidance of many assumptions that often characterize a heteronormative society. Additionally, using certain language is a way to signal that you have engaged with the community in the past and have educated yourself on the issues facing the community. What do we make of criticisms that dismiss language inclusivity as “political correctness”?

2: In response to the above topic, community norms surrounding language are always changing, which can be intimidating for people who are just starting to engage with a movement. In order to build power, movements need to lower the costs to engagement by making their spaces and communities accessible to newcomers. How do they balance this with their norms surrounding respectful and inclusive language?

3: How do social movements convince their members to adhere strictly to nonviolence? Is this a rhetorical process, or is it grounded in practical training that shows members what to expect? What are the benefits of nonviolent organizing? For example, you can have people of all age groups participating.

4: Some American activists (including many LGBT activists) try to transfer their own frameworks for movement building to other countries. Is the rhetoric of the American activists inevitably discounted as an element of unwanted American influence, or are there cases in which this international movement building is effective?

5 (my research topic): Why is Marxist/communist/anti-capitalist rhetoric so prominent in many activist spaces in the United States? In Rules for Radicals (1971), Saul Alinsky discussed how “revolution has become synonymous with communism while capitalism is synonymous with status quo,” largely because most revolutionary writings that activists had access to were grounded in the language of communism (Alinsky 8-9). Alinksy provides a starting point in examining why this rhetoric has become deeply ingrained in many activist movements, which might also be further explained by United States-USSR relations during the Cold War period. In fighting against the capitalist status quo, many activists idealize communist rhetoric without acknowledging the realities of living under communist dictatorships, and my desire to examine this phenomenon is grounded in both its hypocrisies and in its potential hazards.

Culture Jamming: Truly Transgressive?

The fifth chapter of Tim Jordan’s Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society introduces culture jamming, a strategy used by many activists to resist “the cultures that are foisted on us, coming not from communities or individuals or families, but from profit-seeking companies and their hired semioticians” (Jordan 102). Culture jamming, which arises at the “disjunction between familiar advertising techniques and unfamiliar message” (Jordan 102) essentially mimics the format of an existing advertisement in order to create a mirror “advertisement” that subverts the original’s normative message.

In analyzing various instances of culture jamming, Jordan determines who owns and controls certain cultural codes and who seeks to subvert them. Theoretically, as the existing cultural code exists to serve the corporations and states that fund it, subverting the language used by these corporations and states should somehow invalidate them and the social code that benefits from their support. This would make culture jamming a transgressive form of activism!, as defined by Jordan. Yet, does it manage to create new moralities that can impact the future of society? While culture jamming may create a dissonance that causes people to reconsider the often deceptive, manipulative nature of advertisements and the corporations that create them, those who take cultural codes and turn them inside out still need to play off of stereotypes and cultural norms from the past and present in order to make the new, altered imagery salient. In Jordan’s San Francisco cigarette advertisement example, by putting women’s undergarments on a stereotypically macho figure to emasculate him, thus “fracturing the macho man’s sexuality,” are the activists really profoundly restructuring our social norms, or just evoking an age-old association of femininity with weakness and (in men) sexual undesirability (Jordan 106)? How do we determine when culture jamming is subversive in a meaningful and valuable way?