Protest as Suffering (Not Just Civil Disobedience)
Updated: May 4
Black Lives Matter . . . how can we see how they matter amidst protest that cuts across and often goes against the idea of civility?
In this blog, which is a modified excerpt from a forthcoming essay on how technology affects our understanding of political action, I push for the idea that we need to be versatile in seeing how events and actions have more than one face, more than one meaning.
If we can see protest not just as civil disobedience (however warranted it may be in any instance) but also as form of suffering . . . self-awareness, dialogue, and needed change may be easier to nurture.
Because the exceprt is from an academic piece, which focuses on applying speech act theory to political action, I want to provide a very brief exposition of two technical concepts.
The technical bits I take from speech act theory refer to the concepts of illocution and perlocution. Illocution involves the dimension of actions and speech that fit within a framework of conventional and normative expectations of what is right and wrong, both morally and in terms of how to do something well. Illocutions can include anything from good manners to baking a cake well.
Perlocution involves the dimension of actions and speech that exceed the illocutionary dimension of conventional expectations. They can be intended or unintended by the actor or speaker. They relate to effects that transform the way we see and understand; and they can potential result in changing the ways we act or are expected to act. In short, perlocution can change the illocutionary dimension. I provide an example of this with respect to civil disobedience: What is disobedient in one respect is an expression of suffering in another.
"Where you going?"
Consider the action of walking away in a highly charged political context, that of being Black in Los Angeles during the 1960s. A Black man walks away from a white, male police officer in response to his question, "Where you going?". While the officer’s question is itself an illocution (question as threat), making sense of the action of walking away is problematic.
Is it civil disobedience? Or, does it in some way attest to suffering? Can it be both in some sense?
Typically, analysis of the illocutionary force of action involves understanding how an action is subject to, affirms, or calls upon norms, expectations, and rules. Standard cases often refer to effects in which the relation of communication is not dramatically antagonistic, unlike the case of civil disobedience. So, for example, using a thumb's up gesture can be read as an agent’s intention to signal approval that some action can commence.
As long as the audience is aware of the symbolism of the gesture, then understanding is, as J. L. Austin puts it, felicitous. In the example of walking away, the relation of communication is one of breaking what is expected. If the police officer's illocution does not misfire, because the Black man knows he is supposed to stop and answer the question, then walking away appears to defy expectations and conventions.
This defiance does not break with illocutionary norms since the police officer knows that walking away is a possible outcome to the question which then elicits another set of rules for reacting—namely, coercion, restraint, and/or further interrogation. In short, analysing the action at the illocutionary level presents the action as one of non-compliance.
"I can't breathe."
Paul Ricoeur's emphasis on perlocutionary effects helps one to read the action in a different way, which highlights the issue of the suffering agent. Walking away is no longer simply non-compliance but an attestation to suffering. What triggers seeing the act of walking away assomething other than disobedience? It can be words surrounding the action, new awareness of socio-political information, sympathy with the agent, etc.—in short, anything perlocutionary to the context in which the action would typically be understood.
What if one were able to imagine that the agent was faced with this kind of interrogation on a regular basis? Entertaining this or knowing this information enables one to see beyond the limitations of the illocutionary reading of the action and possibly opens to a revelation, to use Arendt’s term—namely, the Black man is tired of suffering repeatedly acts of discrimination which undermine his sense of self-esteem and worth. Kumasi, a Black resident of Watts who was involved in the riots of 1965 comments on police harassment,
Now what do you think that does to me psychologically? What does that tell me? What is message am I being fed every day? See, he [the police officer] don’t understand he’s feeding me a spoonful of hatred.
(Crips and Bloods: Made In America, 2008, 13:22–13:33)
Another resident, Ron Wilkins, offers another view:
And so you feel a sense of alienation. You’re culturally disoriented. You don’t have a sense of identity in terms of who you really are.
(Crips and Bloods: Made In America, 2008, 12:02–12:10).
Admitting the salience of perlocutionary effects has the virtue of helping us to recognize instances where injustices are operative—that is, biases against believing someone's testimony and the misinterpretation of a statement due to some prejudice or lack of information.
For this critical view and openness to be viable, we not only have to be able to hear what another has to say, but also to suffering along with another in his or her attempt to say it, even in the absence of words.
Todd Mei is Senior Lecturer and Head of Philosophy at the University of Kent. He runs the public philosophy website philosophy2U.com and is a keen windsurfer and recovering rock climber.