Academic journal article Liminalities

Activists, Bodies, and Political Arguments

Academic journal article Liminalities

Activists, Bodies, and Political Arguments

Article excerpt

The following essay is adapted from a keynote address presented at the 2014 Patti Pace Performance Festival. The live address included a PowerPoint presentation involving a series of images and videos.1 One of the great strengths of the Patti Pace Festival is the wide range of attendees, which include high school students, undergraduate and graduate students, and professors. This address aims for a middle ground by targeting the undergraduate audience. In brief, the address discussed the manner by which activists use their bodies to make political arguments.

Setting the Stage: An Introduction

People often think of argumentation in terms of verbal communication-for example, someone advances a claim, supports it with evidence, and provides an overall rationale. But we can also use nonverbal communication to make arguments. This is particularly true with activists.

Think of anti-war protesters conducting a classic "die-in." The activists choose a rhetorically significant location-perhaps a military recruiting center or the office of a pro-war representative. The activists gather at the location and at a pre-designated time one of them blows a whistle. Everyone suddenly drops to the ground. Another activist stands among the "lifeless bodies" and recites an anti-war statement. And still another activist is using a handheld projector to cast images onto the side of the building: bombs, fire fights, injured bodies, apache helicopters, draped coffins, looks of despair, and the faces of politicians who have sent us to war. This scene dramatizes the human cost of war and invites passersby to reflect upon realities that are often ignored or forgotten. In brief, it is an argument against the war.2

Such embodied argumentation does at least four things: it allows activists to critique social norms and practices; it allows activists to promote alternative norms and practices; it alters activists' own perceptions and understandings3; and it implicates wider audiences.

For instance, a same-sex couple performs a mock marriage ceremony in front of a courthouse that just outlawed same-sex marriage. This protest critiques the newly passed law and promotes an alternative value of equality-not equality for some people, but equality for all people. The participants of this protest undergo a certain kind of experience that alters their own perceptions and understandings. If nothing else, it acts as an empowering experience of political speech-to act on one's own behalf and to speak back to the very power structures that are excluding them from full equality. If this protest leads to arrest, then the participants will attain intimate knowledge about interaction with police, about being physically detained, and about the jail system, the court system, and the justice system. This protest also implicates wider audiences, and not just the judges or lawyers, but also those who support same-sex marriage, those who oppose same-sex marriage, and even those who are undecided on the issue.

This last point about implication is politically important and theoretically rich: All public discourse implicates wider audiences, but there is something unique about embodied rhetoric and street action. Putting your body on the line calls out to others; it calls people to conscience in a way that verbal discourse does not. Onlookers and witness suddenly think, why am I not doing that? Why am I complacent? Why am I not committed to social justice?

This might help explain the common negative reaction to activists. People feel implicated in the actions and, as a subconscious self-defense mechanism, they lash out at the activists. Rather than embracing that implication and seriously grappling with the activists' views, they feel threatened and find ways to psychologically distance themselves from the activists. If activists are "crazy," then there is no need to consider their arguments.4

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