The Rhetoric of Activism

A few months ago I got lost in the annals of the interwebs and stumbled across the Times Haiku. I don’t think I’ve ever followed a blog faster. The haikus (found using an algorithm that scans New York Times articles) swing from the whimsical to the profound, and they have a tendency to stick in my mind long after I’ve read them. One in particular has been especially “sticky” considering recent events on campus:

Times Haiku

I thought of it at the last College Coffee when students implored their peers and professors to confront what they believe to be a culture of apathy that has led to the silent consent of hate speech on campus. To give a more explicit picture of their protest, one flyer (in a series of flyers created by the group) states: Students call me a faggot because I’m gay AND THAT’S OK WITH ELON #ItsNotOver.

As I listened to their protest, my rhetoric senses began tingling. Rhetorical devices and concepts – persuasion, audience analysis, kairos, decorum, the five canons and three appeals – lend themselves nicely (even if the message is not-so-nice) to activism. These students invented a powerful message, arranged their presentation, styled their protest by making it clear and memorable and finally delivered it at a specific time and place. They considered their audience, chose a medium, appealed to an emotion, and tried to convince people that there’s a problem at Elon.

Was it effective? Crowd reactions ranged from shocked to pleased to ambivalent. One of my professors was angry about it; he didn’t think the flyers were appropriate or even necessary because “the majority of people here are civil.” As I listened to and read various opinions (read the Pendulum article here) I was reminded of a line I read in Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical analysis of Mein Kampf: “People so dislike the idea of internal division that, where there is a real internal division, their dislike can easily be turned against the man or group who would so much as name it, let alone proposing to act upon it.” Regardless of whether civility reigns on campus or not, Burke’s point resonated. Their rhetorical approach – which I think was intended to unite people against the use of divisive rhetoric (i.e., language used to dehumanize or belittle others) – may have caused further division.

Division, unity, constructive dialogue, destructive dialogue – all fall under the umbrella of rhetoric. Rhetoric is a discipline and a practice; it is not solely concerned with words, but also with thoughts and actions. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire writes, “The oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation.” I think that line could also be read, “The oppressed unveil the world of oppression through rhetoric, and through rhetoric commit themselves to its transformation.” Marginalized groups are often unjustly treated in society; these protestors simply called attention – using rhetoric and persuasive appeals – to the fact that injustice occurs within the Bubble, too.

I think this protest was the first rumbling of a greater movement to confront apathy, sexism, homophobia, and racism at Elon. Campus climate change is a slow process, but it will be a nonexistent process if people aren’t convinced the climate even needs to change. I’m looking forward to see how students rhetorically craft their arguments to get their message across and persuade others to fight with and for minority groups and attempt social change. If anything, they have one student convinced that theirs is a worthy fight, and one worth joining.

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