Columns / Discourse / October 2, 2019

The Fire This Time: Lessons on the language of activism

The language of activism is one ingrained into the depths of every human society on this Earth and even in some animal communities in one sense or another.

Sometimes it comes in whispers under the shadows of extreme suppression. Other times it comes in the thundering crack of revolutionary fists striking back against the powers that be.

In spite of its universality, finding the proverbial correct verbs, articles and nouns of activism is certainly not obvious at first glance. Many of us, nervous to get our social movement its sea legs, hold ourselves back from attempting to organize right in our own backyard. I believe it is for this reason that there’s been a potential downturn of activism on campus.

On the shoulders of organizing giants of the past that demonstrated passionately against the South African apartheid or the Iraq War, it seems only right we try to rekindle the flames of true organizing. These days, our lives depend on it.

During my last four years at Knox, little commotion has been made beyond the occasional marches here or scant protests there. Those that have taken place – largely surrounding the 2016 election of Donald Trump – have been meager at best, mostly shaping into a cathartic demonstration of collective outrage.

Collective outrage is by no means bad. Anger is a mighty strong resource in the efforts of mobilization, but if you can’t blend it with other passions as a fuel for further movement it becomes little more than a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. So how do we get involved in that conversion?

Readings, courses and a lot of personal experience boils it down to three main tenets: foundation, precision and thoughtful escalation.

Activists often take little time to consider the slow-moving task of solidarity building and outreach. From small grassroots efforts to huge, national-scale efforts, not many resources ever seem to be placed into the necessity of organizing that is bond-building.

Yet how will you know what allies you have in your corner and what people you can call on if you never speak with them, only picturing their spontaneous participation in the heat of a risky, vital bend in your movement. People seldom engage spontaneously in activism. Solidarity can help with that.

Ally-ship across organizations as well as peoples takes showing up and showing out for the concerns and issues of others, not just asking people to participate in your own. If we want a better world, we have to get our hands dirty for each other.

Going hand in hand with this solidarity is the necessity of a solid set of frames. It seems a bit mundane or pedantic to zero in, not just on the dynamics of your group, but the language and actions you choose to use and avoid, but these often make or break an organization.

I recall, during the 2016 march against Donald Trump here at Knox, that it had been largely hollow in terms of its frame. It seems obvious to some why his presidency was a threat to the well-being of many, but that isn’t enough to build a movement on.

Concretely, what were the problems behind the anger felt at Trump? Cruel immigration policies? The defiance of the popular vote yet again by the electoral college? Concerns over broad voter suppression across the country? These issues are real and tangible and have answers. So how then do you present this issue to the general public?

You need to know exactly what the issue is, its harbingers, and the potential solution you propose. And when you picture this solution, consider who it involves and who may push back.

These decisions give way to strong clarity on what paths are available to success and open your organization up to broader participation. Clear stakes and tasks are the life-blood of continued organization. People can easily come for a loud, passionate rally, but keeping them invested is a matter of language as well as impact. Choose your words wisely!

Once you’ve built a solid foundation on which to stand, you’ll be ready for the greatest necessity of action yet: tactic escalation.

No oppressive institution willingly hands over the keys to liberation. We must fight tooth and nail to retrieve them. What this demands is a demonstration of not only our passion but our power.

Put together that petition to deliver to your representative or your boss or your school president. But when they push you back, that is not the moment to disband. It is the time to raise the stakes. If you have fostered strong solidarity and clarity of frame in your membership, you and your members should be hungry for an escalation of tactics. Because here you will know that the goal was to affect real change, not just make your voices heard.

So if the petition doesn’t work, a sit in may be necessary. If a sit in doesn’t work, a strike may be necessary. Each time you are able to rise against the continued suppression or neglect of an institution or system, you are showing the true power that has always rested in the hands of the people.

So please, grab that power thoughtfully, look after your fellow activists, and keep pushing forward. To quote the wise labor organizer, Jane McAlevey, “Progressive social change cannot be made without a leadership ready to take risks.” Those risks can’t be made without a solid set of tools to work with!

Soleil Smith, Discourse Editor
Discourse Editor

Tags:  activism campus culture direct action galesburg politics politics

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