Chapter 1: Rhetoric and Social Movements
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13 Chapter 1 Rhetoric and social movements In his provocative essay “‘Social Movement’: Phenomenon or Meaning ?” Michael Calvin McGee forcefully argued that the label “social movement” essentially reflected a shared set of meanings within human consciousness—an “organizing of social facts which can be objectivated only in linguistic usage”—rather than an objective phenomenon . From this perspective, he asserted, the “rhetoric of social movements” was more than merely an element existing within the context of the objective phenomenon but was itself the ground out of which the consciousness emerged.1 Although his primary aim was to sharpen the conceptual assumptions underlying scholars’ use of the label—a critique not universally welcomed2 —McGee’s study nevertheless highlighted what rhetorical scholars have long emphasized , that persuasive discourse is the primary agency through which social movements “transform perceptions of reality, enhance the ego of protestors, attain a degree of legitimacy, prescribe and sell courses of action, mobilize the disaffected, and sustain the movement over time.”3 Scholars working from this perspective see social movements as “more than collectively organized actions: They also consist of collectively constructed and shared meanings, interpretations, rituals, and identities.”4 In other words, central to the emergence of a social movement is the discursively created, shared consciousness among individuals engaged in collective action, that a movement exists and that they share a common identity as “members” of it. Many sociologists have come to share this view, reflecting a shift from a traditional focus on structural and organizational dimensions of collective action to one that views “collective action . . . as an interactive , symbolically defined and negotiated process among participants, opponents, and bystanders.”5 Klandermans reflected this orientation 14 Chapter One when he observed that previous approaches failed to take into account the “mediating processes through which people attribute meaning to events and interpret situations. Scholars of social movements have become increasingly aware that individuals behave according to a perceived reality.” Social movements, he continued, are “involved in a symbolic struggle over meaning and interpretation.”6 Thus as Gamson put it, “One can view social movement actors as engaged in a symbolic contest over which meaning will prevail.”7 Movement actors create these symbolic meanings through what have been termed interpretive frames, which they use to “fashion meaningful accounts of themselves and the issues at hand in order to motivate and legitimate their efforts.”8 As Klandermans put it, “Social movements frame—that is, assign meaning to and interpret—relevant events and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize potential adherents and constituents, garner bystander support, and demobilize antagonists.”9 These interpretive frames help to create the sense of collective identity through which “the ‘we’ involved in collective action is elaborated and given meaning.”10 They make it possible for social movements to transform perceptions of the past and the present and to “portray a vision of the future that instills a sense of urgency in audiences to organize and do something now.” Finally, they enable social movements to sustain themselves by offering “believable explanations for setbacks or the lack of meaningful gains or victories” and by convincing followers “that victory is near or inevitable, if all is done correctly and members remain steadfast in their commitment.”11 Narrative, whether conveyed in speech or song or enacted through ritual, is crucial to this process of meaning creation among socialmovement actors, going “to the heart,” Davis argued, “of the very cultural and ideational processes” that social-movement scholars have identified as being essential to movement development. Narratives make events in human experience meaningful by structuring them within temporal and causal sequences, configuring the past in a way that explains the present and predicts the future. They place events within a moral universe, revealing characters’ motives and attributing guilt or innocence to their actions. Through processes of identification, a narrative’s hearers come to experience a common identity, “a ‘we’ that involves some degree of affective bond and a sense of solidarity: told and retold, ‘my story’ becomes ‘our story.’ ”12 Narrative thus uniquely fulfills what McGee identified as the impulse behind defining certain rhetoric and social movements 15 forms of collective behavior as “movement”—the impulse to see the human environment as an “ordered progression of mutually salient episodes” in which social actions are imbued with morality, purpose, and destiny.13 Central to the rhetoric through which Martin Luther King framed the experience of African Americans was one particular story, the Exodus. From his speech on the first night of the Montgomery...



Subject Headings

  • King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968 -- Language.
  • Exodus, The -- Sermons.
  • Exodus, The.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- Southern States -- History -- 20th century
  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • King, Martin Luther, -- Jr., 1929-1968 -- Oratory.
  • Rhetoric -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century
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