Greer, Bad Language and Performative Emotions in Protests

By Tait, Peta | Journal of Australian Studies, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Greer, Bad Language and Performative Emotions in Protests


Tait, Peta, Journal of Australian Studies


Street Protests

This discussion of street demonstrations and emotions frames protesting in relation to theoretical concepts of embodied speech and emotions, and then considers the implications of a shift from smiles to anger during the 1972 New Zealand 'words protests' in support of Australian Germaine Greer. She had received two indecent language charges for the use of an eight-letter word ('bullshit') and one obscene language charge for the use of a four-letter word ('fuck') while on a ten-day speaking tour. Protestors marched in the streets of Wellington and Auckland to protest the charging of Greer, and among the Australians who came to her defence by signing a petition was the then Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan. The political confrontation over legal restrictions on language extended to theatre in 1972 as charges were already pending in New Zealand against the producer of Hair for supposed use of indecent language on the stage. The first part of this article draws on Judith Butler's ideas of 'speech acts' as conduct, as performative action, (1) and performance theory of body phenomenology to support the premise that protestors are emotionally expressive. As happens with theatrical experiences, specific emotions can become illusive after the event, thus the second part of the article presents the traceable example of media provocation and depiction of emotions arising out of a particular set of street protests.

In the context of national security after 11 September 2001, as Don Mitchell points out, the right to protest in the city is never guaranteed in the abstract, and 'liberties are always contested, always only proven in practice'. (2) Mitchell is explaining that the right to take protest action is manifest by people repeatedly taking this action; street protests are evidently performative. Political protests in the city spaces of Western democracies increased in frequency and intensity through the 1960s and 1970s anti-Vietnam War movement era. Marches and rallies in central public spaces remain an important way of showing dissent from the decisions and policies of the prevailing Western democratic governments, and are largely permitted because of past precedents. As Australian, British and American societies witness large anti-war protests once again at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is useful to question how (and at this time, pessimistically, even if) such protests impact on dominant political values. (3)

Street protests might be assumed to be simply a group expression of individual rights to freedom of speech and an indication of democratic participation in Western democracies. But public protesting also usually intends to bring about societal change through social communication that coopts the media. (4) It is worth noting, therefore, that an event in 2005 in Australia under its new national security laws reveals how a wedge can develop between continuing to allow the right to protest in the streets, and yet restricting the right of an individual to speak freely about protest. (5) The focus of this article, however, is on a historical example of street protests that took place in 1972 as reported in one main newspaper and by which this mode of democratic participation was also undeniably an assertion of freedom of speech. The protestors exercised freedom of speech while they campaigned for the right to freer speech, illustrating how such street protesting can be aligned with ideas of performative speech acts. Greer's constructed celebrity status through the Australian media, and her capacity to bring together private and public, has been astutely analysed in detail. (6) This article therefore explores the way in which Greer's public appearances and the ensuing street protests were described in the media in selectively emotive terms that reveal perceptions of protest as having both positive and negative emotional significance. These protests exemplify how protests generally can be interpreted as social performances, although they remain separate from artistic performance, which often contributes to, and/or benefits from the changes brought by social movements. …

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