Research in rhetoric and social protest strives to discover how organized, uninstitutional forces use symbols and symbolic actions to promote or resist change in societal norms and values. Its focus ranges from interpersonal to mass communication, from the colonial period to the present, from moderate to radical elements, and from formal discourses to the rhetoric of the streets.
Until the latter half of the twentieth century, research in the rhetoric of social protest lay dormant in the field of communication, while rhetorical scholars pursued traditional studies of great men speaking well in times of crisis. However, studies of protest rhetoric developed rapidly in the late 1960s with the rise of the civil rights movement in the US, threats of confrontational “black power” advocates, and widespread protests opposing the war in Vietnam. Rhetorical scholars could no longer ignore threatening protestors, who were in their streets, on their campuses, and in their classrooms. Researchers, at first, viewed conflict and confrontation with its attendant strident rhetoric as problems to be avoided or resolved through reasoning and locating common ground. Problems (controversies rather than conflicts) were perceived as communication breakdowns or failures to communicate.
Simons (1972) was the first to challenge the “establishment bias” of rhetorical studies of social protest. He and others argued that while many questioned the rhetorical strategies and tactics of social protest, the protestors themselves faced nearly impossible rhetorical situations in which they were viewed as illegitimate, systematically denied access to normal channels and procedures, had virtually no powers of reward and punishment, and enjoyed neither legislative nor enforcement powers. Simons argued that methods of influence appropriate for “drawing room controversies” were ineffective in resolving conflicts in which neither party was willing or able to compromise. Confrontations were inevitable because they were clashes in which one party’s relative gain was the other’s relative loss. Simons described the essential nature of protest rhetoric as “coercive persuasion” designed to make institutions pay attention, address issues, and consider change. Both Simons and Burgess (1973) claimed that coercive persuasion was inherently rhetorical because protestors had to persuade target audiences that dire consequences were likely, if not certain, before they would feel forced to comply, and that audiences must become convinced of the coercer’s probable capacity and intent to follow through with the threatened action.
When scholars began to study social protest rhetoric in earnest, doubts arose about the theoretical bases of such studies. After studying US president Johnson’s “war on poverty” as three establishment movements, Zarefsky (1977) questioned whether the life cycle and strategies being attributed to the rhetoric of social movements were unique to social protest or common to most campaigns and movements. He claimed that Johnson’s war on poverty followed the same cycle and employed the same strategies scholars claimed to be unique to non-establishment movements. McGee (1980) argued that the notion of a social movement was more “meaning” than “phenomenon” and concluded that the study of social movements, and therefore social protest, might become a theory of human consciousness but not a rhetorical theory.
Lucas (1980) challenged these criticisms by claiming that the roles of rhetoric in social protest could not be understood by merely looking at the formal properties of protest discourse or by applying self-evident propositions to the role of rhetoric in constructing social reality, but only by carefully analyzing the interaction of discourses with other social and situational factors that influence the process of protest rhetoric within social movements. Simons (1980) took a similar position, noting that strategies and life cycle were not the definitive characteristics of social movements. He traced situational theory to classical Greek rhetorical theory and identified common situational factors with which protestors must contend in their efforts to bring about or resist change. These factors made their rhetorical efforts unique, set them apart from establishment movements, and made them worthy of study. The emphasis on unique situational variables and the interaction of situational forces has significantly influenced the study of social protest rhetoric since the early 1980s.
Rhetoric And Social Conflict
Rhetorical scholars have claimed that confrontational strategies in social protest are not only inevitable but essential to successful outcomes. Cathcart (1978) claimed that protestors must use such strategies to produce a dialectical tension growing out of moral conflict that provokes a clash with institutions and institutional leaders. The struggle becomes a moral battle for power and legitimacy to define and control the social order. To attain legitimacy in this moral struggle, protestors must strip institutions and their leaders of legitimacy by provoking confrontations that show how ugly institutions really are. The need to create this dialectical tension explains the use of symbolic actions and language strategies (vilification, obscenity, scapegoating, and polarization) to provoke repressive and sometimes violent reactions by institutional agents and agencies.
Researchers have also argued that conflict and controversy should not be avoided or stifled because both are critical to the development and improvement of society. Griffin (1969) employed the theories of Kenneth Burke when writing that to study social protests is to study strivings for salvation, perfection, and progress, rather than efforts to disrupt, do harm, or destroy. Stewart et al. (2007) have advocated an interpretive systems approach that sees the potential of conflict to create opportunities for societal growth and progress, adaptation and evolution. These notions have led to studies aimed at understanding the rationales and purposes of extremist rhetoric, violence, riots, terrorism, and disruptive acts such as sit-ins and boycotts.
Since confrontations inherently involve two or more adversaries, researchers have studied the rhetorical strategies and tactics of institutions and counter-movements – a rhetoric of control – created to resist or stifle protest rhetoric in moral struggles for right and wrong, good and evil (Bowers et al. 1993). They have studied institutional efforts to control language, media, channels, information, expertise, and agendas, and strategies such as evasion, counterpersuasion (framing issues, enhancing fear appeals, challenging motives, denigrating the opposition), coercive persuasion (expulsion, restrictive laws, harassment, arrests), and adjustment. Some researchers have focused on the internal conflicts among individuals and groups fighting for essentially the same causes, including competing labor unions and moderate to radical organizations struggling for women’s rights, to preserve the environment, or to protect animals.
Studies from the 1950s to the 1990s often focused on the life cycle of social movements, many based on the research of sociologists and social psychologists. While usually avoiding the notion that social protest follows a linear life cycle, moving inevitably from one stage to another, researchers have attempted to discover recurring and changing rhetorical purposes, strategies, and ever-changing relationships. Recent efforts have focused on similarities and differences between first, second, and third wave feminism and environmentalism and how the perspectives of protestors are shaped and changed over time, for example, in the gay liberation and civil rights movements (Darsey 1991; Stewart 1997).
Rhetorical researchers have also conducted leader-centered studies. Simons’ (1970) classic essay has had profound effects on the study of protest rhetoric. He identified the requirements, problems, and dilemmas leaders must resolve through rhetorical strategies, and concluded that, while protestors are denied the controls enjoyed by institutional leaders and are harassed from outside, they must perform the same functions while trying to adapt to the external system. Leaders of social protests must continually balance inherently conflicting demands on their positions and organizations. Stewart et al. (2007) studied the roles of protest leaders (organizers, decision-makers, and symbols), fundamental leadership characteristics based on Max Weber’s work (charisma, prophecy, and pragmatism), and how they sustain their leadership. Other researchers have focused on the rhetoric of individual leaders, including their use of narratives, the jeremiad, a feminine style, dialectic, argument from transcendence, perspective by incongruity, and framing. They have analyzed efforts to adapt to generic and situational constraints and to use what they have, including family, position, personal sufferings, and personal testimony.
Theorists have long advocated a functional approach to understanding social protest rhetoric and to constructing generalizations that apply to past and future protest activities. This approach sees rhetoric as the agency through which protestors perform necessary functions (indispensable processes) that enable organized efforts to come into existence, to meet oppositions, and perhaps to succeed in bringing about or resisting change (Stewart 1980). Researchers have developed schemes of functions and identified which might be most prevalent during differing phases of social protest. Simons (1970) identified three general functions or requirements: attracting, maintaining and molding believers into effective organizations; securing adoption of their ideology by established institutions; and reacting to resistance from within and without. Stewart et al. (2007) have identified six critical functions: transforming perceptions of social reality, altering self-perceptions, legitimizing the protest effort, prescribing courses of action, mobilizing for action, and sustaining the effort. Gregg’s (1971) early functional study of ego enhancement has had major impact on research in social protest. He claimed that protest rhetoric was primarily self-directed because protestors must recognize and proclaim to self and others that their ego had been ignored or harmed to the point of disenfranchisement.
Many researchers have studied the channels protestors have used to transmit messages to believers, nonbelievers, and the opposition and to sustain their efforts. Such studies include artillery election sermons as a prelude to the American fight for independence, pamphleteering of anti-British colonialists, the radio addresses of the Rev. Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, the eulogies of Cesar Chavez, television coverage of feminism’s Strike for Equality, and video documentaries opposing abortion. Several studies addressed the rhetorical characteristics, purposes, strategies, and impact of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Other research has focused on songs, slogans, the Internet, autobiographies, and memorials that recruit, celebrate, and recall past struggles to bring about change and equality and to sustain the struggles and gains of past protestors.
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- Darsey, J. (1991). From “gay is good” to the scourge of AIDS: The evolution of gay liberation rhetoric: 1977–1990. Communication Studies, 42, 43–66.
- Gregg, R. (1971). The ego-function of the rhetoric of protest. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 4, 71–91.
- Griffin, L. (1969). A dramatistic theory of the rhetoric of movements. In W. Rueckert (ed.), Critical responses to Kenneth Burke. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 456–478.
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- Stewart, C. (1997). The evolution of a revolution: Stokely Carmichael and the rhetoric of black power. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 83, 429–446.
- Stewart, C., Smith, C. A., & Denton, R. (2007). Persuasion and social movements, 5th edn. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.
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- Zarefsky, D. (1980). A skeptical view of social movements. Central States Speech Journal, 31, 245– 254.