Change as a Social Movement: The Language of Protest

Change is afoot: the burning of headscarves by schoolgirls in Iran, the scaling of bridges in the UK, massed tractors in France, or Occupy movements on Wall Street. We see people #TakeAKnee, or glue themselves to roads, throw soup, paint, eggs or insults. Sometimes people just drive slowly, talk slowly, or even overpay a bill by a cent, just to demonstrate dissatisfaction. Protest speaks in different languages, and plays out in different ways, but why does some achieve a greater effect than the other? What language of protest works, and how are these languages spread, even in oppressive contexts?

I’m interested in how change works as a Social Movement: what causes systems to tip? How is the established ‘norm’ held, and what fractures it? Why do some Social Movements work, whilst others fail, or is it really that clear? And why are so many distinctly identifiable: is the proliferation of specific behaviours, mechanisms, identifying signs, or language essential to a successful Social Movement, or incidental to it? And how are these ‘languages’ identified, shared, and normalised?

Look at the ‘Take a Knee’ movement, initially in the United States, against racial injustice and police brutality. It was Colin Kaepernick who acted and then personified the movement, but the spread was rapid, across borders, and between domains. The act of taking a knee is both visual, and now immediately identifiable: the movement itself has become imbued with value.

The death of Nika Shakarami, a sixteen year old girl, allegedly as a result of police brutality as proved to be the spark setting Iran alight. It’s far from clear whether these protests (which may already have claimed over 200 lives, possibly many more) will topple the regime, or be silenced. The distinctive feature of the protests is the burning of headscarves by school girls, as well as them chanting against their leaders, and the cutting of their own hair, often on camera, by women around the world. These highly visual protests and the innate power imbalance between teenage girls (a number of whom have been killed or disappeared) and heavily armed police or militia is a clear factor too.

Recently i have become more interested in the role of precursor networks, reactivated at need, as well as the role of rituals and artefacts in allowing unification and alignment of protest at scale. Also considering the role of oppositional vs consensus based models of protest (e.g. the difference between ‘i don’t want what we have now’ vs ‘this is what we want instead).

The Iranian protests against the regime are clearly spreading, despite a near total control over the internet and the visible social collaborative technologies, as well as a locked down media. In the UK the presence of the media leads to a very different model of protest, where people who are (at least superficially) confident that their physical safety is not jeopardised create new languages of protest (such as glueing themselves to the road, confident that nobody will run them over), or passively sitting as ‘dead weights’ to block junctions.

This is a more civilised language of dissent, which requires a ‘permission’ of both the formal authorities and protestors, whereby physical violence is abstracted into parodies of protest, but nonetheless allowed to carry the legacy weight. However, it’s not a stable system: proposed legislation will criminalise the act of ‘locking on’ (by superglue or chains) to infrastructure (like bridges or gates), and already we see the carrying of placards (itself a powerful language of protest) being made illegal in Parliament Square in the UK.

Rituals of protest and visual languages allow disparate groups to be ‘joined up’ at scale: so someone who ‘takes a knee’ in London ties into the imbued power of the motion from the US, even if they do not play American Football nor have ever been to the States. The power comes through association.

The burning of headscarves is symbolic in that the wearing of headscarves is dictated by the religious leadership and enforced by the police who murdered Nika. Hence the deliberate destruction of the item ‘shouts’ the dissent. These children are not simply putting the headscarf into a drawer: rather they are burning them on video. Amplifying their dissent. And actively inviting consequence.

Tragic as it is, the progression or amplification of a Social Movement, may only happen at times through sacrifice or the ‘paying of the price’. What that price is may lie in the hands of the legacy power, but the choice to pay it – or risk it – lies with the protestors.

The visual language of protest is so powerful that people may be persecuted or prosecuted simply for using it: athletes may be fined for raising a fist or taking a knee, and ordinary citizens may be arrested for scaling, sitting or standing in the wrong place: protest is highly contextual of course, so even historically tolerated movement may become intolerable to a regime.

Many Social Movements that ‘deserve’ to succeed simply fizzle out and fail. And of course some seem to turn into fireworks without any apparent effort, planning, central coordination or even commonly discernible goals. But quite why that is can be quite mysterious.

When i see the protests in Iran i feel two concurrent things: hope for change in an oppressive regime, and just a terrible sadness at the consequences that those girls face. But that speaks to what is often a truth of Social Movements.

They bring change, at a cost. And that cost must be paid. Hard as it may be to bear, the tipping point of change often comes at great cost to individuals. But without it, the Dominant Narrative never fractures, and hence there is no space for a new truth to be written.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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1 Response to Change as a Social Movement: The Language of Protest

  1. Alan Ryan says:

    Interesting thoughts Julian. In many aspects, its a sad indictment and a harsh truth of how far many people have failed to develop. Thank you.

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