- Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy by Stephen D’Arcy
The title of Stephen D’Arcy’s new book Languages of the Unheard cites Martin Luther King Jr., noting that the militant tries to “give a voice to the voiceless.” (22) D’Arcy’s project asks for elaboration of this idea – wondering how might militancy facilitate democracy? Mixing rigorous analysis of the arguments for and against militancy with thought experiments that explore scenarios within a range of social movements, the book makes a compelling case that when used appropriately, militancy can be a civic virtue.
D’Arcy’s argument hinges on what he calls the “democratic standard” of public autonomy, “that is, the self-governance of people through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion.” (4) He proposes four principles of soundness that can be used to evaluate whether or not militant protest builds that self-governance. I’ll restate the principles here, as they are so central to his argument and should be discussed even by those who do not have the opportunity to read the book. The first is the Opportunity Principle which holds that “militancy should create new opportunities to resolve substantive and pressing grievances, when attempts to do so through reason-guided public discussion are thwarted by intransigent elites or unresponsive institutions”. The second is the Agency Principle, which notes that [End Page 414] “militancy should encourage the most directly affected people to take the lead in securing the resolution of their own grievances.” The third principle is that of autonomy. “Militancy should enhance the power of people to govern themselves through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion.” The final principle is that of accountability, which means that “militancy should limit itself to acts that can be defended publicly, plausibly and in good faith as duly sensitive to the democratic values of common decency and the common good.” (64–70) Together, the four principles are intended to provide a set of criteria to help those evaluating tactics and social movement strategy. Militancy (and by this he means militant action or tactics) is grievance motivated, adversarial, and confrontational collective action. He usefully identifies four styles of militancy – that escalate from defiance (symbolic or material), to disruption, destruction, and armed force.
The book is divided into two parts: the first develops and articulates a standard by which one can evaluate the soundness of a militant tactic; the second evaluates when and how different militant tactics can fulfill the democratic standard. He targets the main arguments both in favour and opposed to militancy. Beginning with the liberal critique, he questions the liberal argument that militancy is coercive by shutting down reasoned debate, countering it by pointing out that there is little possibility of such debate in the unequal contemporary context. Given a situation where small, privileged elites dominate political, economic, and social life, militancy that disrupts this order has the possibility of providing opportunities for more agency, autonomy, and accountability. He also counters three common defences of militancy – that of amorality (that virtue and vice are irrelevant in assessing tactics), consequentialism (that tactics should only be evaluated by their maximization of welfare), and pluralism (diversity of tactics).
In the section where he evaluates the defence of militant action, D’Arcy’s history of engagement within social movements becomes particularly visible. Those similarly involved will appreciate his discussion of diversity of tactics as a defence of militancy, and how this pluralist approach has led to certain dilemmas. He notes that it often conflates two different ideas – the idea that a multiplicity of tactics is beneficial and desirable, with the idea that that any tactical choice should not be condemned or debated because there is no single way of evaluating tactical choices. D’Arcy traces the dynamics of this debate from the Seattle protests of 1999 against the World Trade Organization to the St. Paul principles adopted in 2008 at the Republican National Convention protests in Minnesota, to the G20 protests in Pittsburgh and then Toronto in 2010. While embracing the idea of diversity...