Effective Persuasion in Matters of Social Consequence
by AJ Krizizke
In a class last fall, my colleagues and I had a chance to talk to Dr. Ada Hubrig about the disability rights movement and activism. During this discussion, Dr. Hubrig said something that has stuck with me since: “Anyone can be an activist, not just brave or heroic people.” While it may seem obvious, I had never fully thought about this idea before. Activism is not done solely by the charismatic leaders and hardy protestors that are often portrayed in the media. Instead, it is done by many people who may not be shown as outstandingly heroic or exceedingly brave. The qualities of activists do not fully matter. What matters is the methods they use to advocate for change.
When it comes to activism, a lot of thought and discussion goes into what methods are most effective in spreading awareness or inciting meaningful change. Many utilize whatever approach that best serves the current situation. Activists do this to strike while the iron is hot, using current emotions to give the rhetoric more force. While this tactic may work in the short term, the rhetoric produced can often lack lasting impact. When it comes to making strong rhetorical choices in activist pieces, it is best to study rhetoric that stands the test of time. In doing so, we can learn how to make our own powerful activist rhetoric.
One example we can look to for studying effective activist rhetoric is Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Speech from the March on Washington” – more commonly known as the “I Have A Dream” speech. The colloquial title refers to the prominent repetition used by King in the imagination of an ideal, socially equal world. This influential address and its strategies would be adapted repeatedly by future social justice movements. Beyond this speech, we can look at a lesser known (yet still profound) text from Lydia X. Z. Brown (they/them) that addresses the fact that racism and ableism cannot be tackled on their own. Brown introduces the harmful consequences of ignoring the intersectionality of race and disability with personal testimonies. They then lead the reader into a climax where they repeat what they mean in their call for more focus on this topic. Albeit written and published in different times and for different movements, both of these pieces use anecdotes and repetition to appeal to the audience’s ethical beliefs and emotions. The authors then follow this appeal with clear ideas that encourage the reader to connect with activism. By analyzing the usage of these rhetorical devices and the connection they create, we can understand how to utilize these methods in our own activism.
Anecdotes are a very important tool in the writer’s toolbox. A simple short story is all it takes for somebody to deepen their understanding of a topic, or even gain a new perspective on it. In activist rhetoric, anecdotes are used to prevent people from ignoring or invalidating injustice. This interruption of ignorance is seen in Brown’s argument when they discuss the students they worked with as a lawyer. Brown writes,
[. . . they] were all disabled and almost all Black. They were often suspended, expelled, and criminally charged for manufactured offenses. One was charged with assault because of a friendly snowball fight [. . .] Another was sent to an alternative school [. . .] for defending themselves [. . .] Another was functionally expelled after two years of racist harassment targeting both the student and the parent (Brown).
The beginning of this passage is important to the article’s theme about intersectionality. It is clear that race was a factor alongside disability in the discriminatory creation of these ‘offenses’. Most people would view the criminalization of these actions as absurd. In response to this idea, Brown uses multiple anecdotes for a dual purpose. Not only do they emphasize this absurdity, these anecdotes cause the audience to question the quality and equity of a justice system that would criminalize these behaviors. As an activist, Brown understands that they sometimes need to work against people’s assumptions about a topic. This understanding leads them to employ anecdotes in a way that brings out the full potential of the device, implicitly leading readers to certain conclusions.
But do anecdotes have the same power to those who are already persuaded? Activist rhetoric does not just appeal to nonactivists. It is also read by other advocates and allies, fortifying their resolve and bringing focus to specific issues. Dr. King uses anecdotes in this way when orating his speech. After setting up the rhetorical question of “Then there are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, when will you be satisfied?” (King), he answers,
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality [. . .] as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways [. . .] as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: whites only [. . .] as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote [. . .] we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream (King).
Like Brown, Dr. King uses anecdotes to appeal to the audience’s ethical beliefs of equality and justice, while also highlighting the hardships caused by racism. Unlike Brown, Dr. King’s audience already supports his cause, and thus he employs anecdotes in a different way. By beginning this portion with a rhetorical question, he frames his anecdotes as specific issues activists should be tackling. He does not need to persuade the audience to his side, but instead persuade them to continue the fight in spite of these hardships. Whether the purpose of an anecdote is to cause the reader to self-reflect, or to highlight specific issues, its usage as a rhetorical device allows activists to connect with an audience. Anecdotes can send a variety of messages to fit contextual needs. Yet in this variability they do not lose strength. This means they can be utilized by anybody to push for social change. This strength is not exclusive to anecdotes, and can be seen in other devices.
Repetition is another common rhetorical device authors use in order to reinforce a main idea to a reader. When it comes to repetition used by activists, we may often think of slogans at protests. However, repetition is not only used to stand ground in protest of injustice, but in the form of anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences) to apply specific meaning to key ideas. Perhaps the most famous usage of anaphora is found near the end of Dr. King’s speech. What most people think of when they think of this speech is Dr. King’s exclamation:
I still have a dream [. . .] I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed [. . .] I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. [. . .] I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together (King).
At the start of each sentence, Dr. King states “I have a dream. . .” This is done to iterate the fact that he is creating an ideal world for the audience to consider, one which contains equality and peace. By phrasing these goals as dreams, King uses the positive connotation of dreams to associate equality with good features. The repetition comes in to make clear what is being worked towards – allowing nonactivists to understand the message and perhaps work towards this goal themselves. Were this message to be obfuscated, the persuasive power of this speech would be greatly diminished.
Activist rhetoric is not solely about stating the goal of a social justice movement, it is also about getting people to understand why social justice movements (and support for them) are needed. Repetition is a way activists can highlight injustices in society. We see this usage of repetition in Brown’s article when they write;
This is what I mean when I say that we cannot talk about disability honestly and fully without talking about race. I mean that forced sterilization still happens today, and has always relied on characterizing Black, Native, and Latinx women specifically as sexually promiscuous, criminal, and mentally defective. I mean that social workers and child “welfare” agencies still target Black, Native, and Latinx families [. . .] I mean that immigration rules that screen out people based on fear they will become “a public charge” (that is, use social services or receive public assistance) are rooted in historical white supremacy, anti-blackness, and ableism. And I mean that even how most people talk about COVID-19 (and even Chinese restaurants) reveals racist, ableist beliefs about East Asian people as dirty, tainted, or contaminated (Brown).
Brown uses anaphora in repeating the phrase “I mean. . .” at the start of each sentence. They are using their authority as an activist to demonstrate a need for focus on intersectional social justice. Following each “I mean. . .” is a discussion of issues, and each one includes at least two identities. Race, disability, and gender are not lone reasons why people are harmed; their effects compound. The repetition of injustices and the fact they are intentional coalesce into a larger meaning: the need for social justice on all fronts. Repetition’s strength comes from its ability to allow authors to ensure readers leave with some key idea in their mind. For activists this is important because there are no constraints to this key idea, it can be anything as long as it is repeated tactfully. However, repetition is not versatile for that fact only. The ideas repeated do not have to be grandiose or complex, meaning that anybody can use repetition in their persuasion of others.
Within the rhetoric of many activists there is a common throughline: specific appeals to an audience and the succession of concise ideas. Regardless of the writer or time of writing, we see this achieved through specific rhetorical strategies. These strategies allow viewers to connect with causes whether it be through empathetic understanding with anecdotes, or consideration of key ideas by way of repetition. These rhetorical devices, however, are not exclusive to trained rhetoricians. Instead, they can be applied by anybody in their pursuit of social justice.
With the way the world is right now, social change may feel impossible. What’s important to remember is that the obstacles we face today have been overcome before. To echo what Dr. Hubrig said, anybody can become an activist. As such, anybody holds the ability to change the world, the only limits are the ones we put on ourselves. Through understanding how those before us have achieved victory, we can find our own way to success, and create a better world for all.
Brown, Lydia X. Z. “We Can’t Address Disability Without Addressing Race. Here’s Why.” Learn Play Thrive. 18 June 2020. Web. 16 Oct. 2021. https://learnplaythrive.com/we-cant-address-disability-without-addressing-race/
King Jr., Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” March on Washington, 28 August 1963, Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., Keynote Speech.
Hubrig, Ada, panelist. Discussion on assigned readings on disability justice. First Year Seminar: Good Trouble: The Rhetoric of Social Change, 1 Oct. 2021, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA.
AJ Krizizke is a sophomore majoring in writing at Coe College. His enthusiasm for rhetorical analysis flourished in working on this piece. In his free time, AJ enjoys reading, writing, and watching movies with his friends.
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