Sticks & Stones May Break my Bones… But Words? On Social Justice Rhetoric

Photo credit: Joint Action Committee for Social Justice - UoH,  here

Photo credit: Joint Action Committee for Social Justice - UoH, here

Lata Mani

First published on April 1, 2016 as a guest post on here. 

“When people speak about this or that, I try to imagine what the result would be if translated into reality. When they “criticize” someone, when they “denounce” his ideas, when they “condemn” what he writes, I imagine them in the ideal situation in which they would have complete power over him. I take the words they use - demolish, destroy, reduce to silence, bury - and see what the effect would be if taken literally.” Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher,” 322. [1]

Foucault’s words are unsettlingly apposite to the current climate in India where an authoritarian government is seeking to quite literally crush and eliminate all dissent, all dissenters, any notion it deems illegitimate. The totalitarian fantasies of the BJP and its affiliates give us a real-time view of the violence that Foucault’s words can only discursively conjure. It gives us pause for thought about a tendency in the rhetorical practices of social justice activism.

Activists express social justice concerns by means of several genres: position papers, legal briefs, fact-finding reports, press releases, scholarly essays, poetry, songs, slogans, first person accounts, analytical blogs and opinion pieces. Each genre offers its own tonal range in what it is expressible and by extension audible. Argument, polemic, report or testimonial can combine reason, passion, wit, rage, hope, grief, love, frustration and disbelief. Some iterations abbreviate complexity into finely honed rhetorical screams. Others artfully extend the formal constraints of a given genre to create the unexpected. On occasion an inspired slogan can condense the core idea and zeitgeist of a movement. “We are the 99%” or “Black Lives Matter” would be recent examples; as also “Jai Bhim, Lal Salaam,” which sums up the yearning for a more egalitarian coming together of Indian Left and Dalit movements in the current phase of the struggle against casteism, social inequality and freedom of thought and expression.

The plurality of forms and affects makes sociopolitical critique a vibrant and diverse space. That said, the not-uncommon tendency to adopt an oppositional mode of address makes such critique vulnerable to enacting the kind of violence Foucault describes. On the one hand it is not surprising that such a stance might be assumed. After all social justice activism is a form of protest, a boundary-pushing activity. It is concerned with unfinished business: social norms that contravene law, rights usurped or never conferred, varieties of social inequality and exclusion, the unequal apportioning of state resources etc.  It frequently addresses the state and its institutions. In such a context one can come to think of the marshaling of word-image-sound as akin to semiotic bricks being hurled against prevailing structures of power. Thus it is that regardless of genre there is a strong undercurrent of polemic.

Polemic, derives from polemos, the Greek word for war. It refers to a strongly worded argument against an opposing perspective. In describing polemic in this way I have deliberately excluded three terms also customarily used in defining it: aggressive, attack, controversial. The last of these relates to the context of theological debate which is not relevant here; the first two I have rephrased as “strongly worded” so that we may think about how to retain the vigor of such a mode of disputation without taking on the aggression implied by its etymological root in the Greek word for war. The opposite of polemic is irenic, deriving from eirenikos, the Greek word for peace. In Greek mythology, Eirene is one of the goddesses of the seasons and the natural order. Irenics is defined as a conciliatory mode of engagement, pacific, non-polemical; in the theological context presenting points of agreement among Christians to emphasize their ultimate unity. If we bracket the sense of irenics as a mode of subsuming difference in the interest of unity but hold to the ideas of peace and the natural order of things, we can draw on both polemic and irenic to reconsider some of our rhetoric.

It could be argued that the scale and depth of prevailing injustice warrants retaining aggression as integral to polemic.  However, such a view makes little sense given that the goal of activism is to recreate society, enable a new mode of relating to one another. Activism is the praxis of persuasion; the remaking of social norms through cumulative collective action until even those who continue to resist recognize their position to be socially illegitimate. It is a continual process with stops, starts, switchbacks and reversals. It involves working to dismantle not just external institutional edifices but the internal cognitive and affective frames that shape our perception of things. The idea of word-image-sound as hurled brick cannot capture this dual movement.

And yet the idea persists among the privileged as well as the disenfranchised. As rage or grief projected outward. As a way of positioning oneself outside the structure or faultline under discussion. As a means of challenging a differing point of view. As a way of proclaiming innocence of intention. Propelled at times by the added velocity of a sense of superiority whether inherited as social capital or claimed as a right denied. As a consequence rhetoric about violence can itself become belligerent even mobilizing denunciation and shame. Such a strategy cannot persuade anyone who does not already agree with us, though such individuals might feel affirmed by what we say, perhaps even by how we say it.

One reason this mode of address seems legitimate is that for the most part activist discourse implicitly or explicitly addresses the state, those implacably opposed to whatever is being argued for, defended or challenged, or else others in the social justice movement. This tendency effectively overlooks the vast middle of society - the overwhelming majority - which evinces a multiplicity of perspectives and varying degrees of concern and indifference all of which can be bewildering to Left and Right alike, albeit for different reasons. This “middle” largely functions as a kind of backdrop for the pointed volley of arguments between the two organized ends of the continuum. Typically the Right falsely claims to represent these multitudes especially in matters of “culture” while the Left can seem wary of them, a skepticism sometimes misplaced at other times justified. But no real social transformation is possible without directly addressing this populous segment and an aggressive approach is unlikely to meet an enthusiastic reception which is why groups working in and with communities generally adopt a different strategy than activists campaigning about issues.

However, far more important than an instrumental concern about what will not work is the truth that social movements are living laboratories of the futures they envisage. How we deal with difference in all its dimensions thus becomes a crucial litmus test, whether we are speaking of difference as in the varieties of social experience that characterize an unequal society or differing perspectives regarding the best means of addressing the problems, tensions and conflicts that ensue. The dynamic of uncompromising opposition needs to be in a continual relationship with an evolving imagination of our post-conflict future. We will have to live alongside and amidst those we have energetically opposed. Our politics must reflect that reality.

An abiding focus on the state and on law has enabled the self-other binary to persist in social justice discourse. It is as though we can leave to law and a range of institutional mechanisms the management of post-conflict life, the work of reconciliation in its sense of ‘bringing together once again.’ But the negative restraint of law is only useful if supported by an affirmative change of heart among a substantial majority. And that requires a discourse that goes beyond inverting existing hierarchies and its values to reimagining a non-hierarchical means of living our inter-relationality. It implies moving away from a conception of society as the agglomeration of distinct collectivities whose relations can be institutionally mediated, towards thinking of personal and social interrelations as forms of dense mutualities.

Inter-relationality and mutuality are preconditions of existence, the natural order of things. In that sense both already prevail though in forms distorted by the hierarchies in place and in play in a given society. In challenging these hierarchies we have tended to reclaim socially produced difference by asserting separateness, in the process downplaying the facts of our complex if unequal interconnectedness. To re-center inter-relationality and mutuality would be to pivot political practice. For it would dissolve the self-other binary (a secondary misperception) to lay bare the primary misperception which is the disavowal of interrelationship in the production of difference as Otherness.

To work from this basis is to restore intimacy to politics. There is no absolute Other separable from oneself. Both continually constitute each other though not (yet) in just or egalitarian ways.  It is also to more fully integrate the simultaneously inward-outward dynamic of politics as a transformative process. Such a reorientation would inspire its own rhetoric, no less vigorous, complex or compelling though perhaps less Other-directed and focused equally on the question of how we are to live together as on how to challenge existing structures of inequality. In short, a new conjunction of polemic and irenic; hard work to be sure but more equal to the hopes and dreams of liberation that fuel activism. For far too long we have allowed the violence of history to shape our imagination of the future, not trusting that we can and must expect more from ourselves, from each other, and from that blessed activity we have come to call “politics.”

It is generally thought that in times of crisis it is best to raise the conceptual drawbridge and defer a rethinking of basic premises. But the grace under fire manifested by the current student movement in context of state-orchestrated hate and violence invites the opposite. Students have been remarkable in their generosity, inclusivity, stillness and clarity. Learning, growing and teaching as they have been willing to do in the full glare of a hostile mass media is no mean feat. The maturity of students at Hyderabad Central University has been especially moving and inspiring. I dedicate this post to them. 

The last in a triptych on current events and the discourse of social justice activism. Previous posts here & here.

[1] Paul Rabinow ed., Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984, vol. 1, New York: The New Press, 1997.