Framing Social Movements: Rhetoric and Discourse

First of all: hello class. I did not include a brief introduction like some of my fellow students, so I will quickly add something. My name is Rogelio Alejandro Lopez, and I am a first year grad student of Comparative Media Studies and a Research Assistant at the Center for Civic Media. My current projects include a study of the media strategies used by social movements today, such as immigrant’s rights movements, and also the general area of activism and social justice. I am taking the course to expand my knowledge on the dynamics of social movements, both for my research project and for personal growth.  My blog for the Center for Civic Media can be found at civic.mit.edu.

The broad themes that I was able to stitch together from these week’s readings are: 1) there are many dynamics and dimensions that comprise social movements and consequently 2) there are equally varied ways for theorizing their occurrence and composition. While dealing more generally with the psychological factors that are at play among masses of people and not specifically social movements, Gustave Le Bon’s “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” serves to showcase the scholarly discourse from 1896 that in many ways is still present today. The reading “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory” by McCarthy and Zald provides a theoretical framework, inspired by concepts from the field of economics, that places emphasis on how social movements are sustained through different resources. Both readings can be valuable in the understanding of social movements, but they can also present some challenges that I will go into further detail below.

I will start with what I thought was valuable from the Le Bon reading. The work would fall into the discipline of psychology, specifically social psychology, which is the study of the human psyche in social conditions. For one, the reading provides key concepts that resemble notions used today, such as “groupthink,” “mob mentality,” or “hivemind.” I would not dispute these ideas that attempt to explain how actions are altered through social pressures, however I would challenge the contexts under which they are used. We must constantly remind ourselves of the context from which Le Bon is writing: the year is 1896, and the examples he uses are primarily of angry mobs. He is writing more about the specific example of the storming of the Bastille, not even the entire French Revolution, than the abolitionist or women’s suffrage movements.

This raises a question: What distinguishes a social movement from an angry mob? This bring me to my next points, which are the implications of scholarship like Le Bon’s in the perception of social movements. There is no denying that the work is highly problematic by today’s standards: he touches upon ideas that reflect a eugenics understanding of race, and he is extremely condescending to communal formations by calling them “inferior” and comparing participants to animals. For the record, I do not aim to excuse Le Bon for his deficit language and thinking by placing his work into context. However, even if we do not agree with Le Bon’s approach, early scholarship such as this set the stage for understanding mass social gatherings. More importantly, this work is important on a purely rhetorical and discourse dimension, because much of the ideas presented by Le Bon, especially the deficit ones, are still present in the mainstream perception of social movements.

I wish I had more concrete examples to further support this claim, but I am sure we have all heard it before. There is constant talk of people “jumping on the bandwagon” regarding the Occupy Movement, and even the Tea Party Movement. This bandwagon notion highlights the unconscious drive and loss of individuality that Le Bon talks about.  The public discourse, largely generated by the media, often emphasizes how social movement participants are ignorant and misguided. This is true for the 2006 student walkouts in Los Angeles, where over 80,000 students organized protests against H.R. 4437. In a study by the UCLA Graduate School of Education, researchers found that the media portrayed the walkout participants as “uniformed truants.” However, the study showed that students were able to strongly articulate why civil disobedience was needed. Long after 1896, large communal gatherings are still presented as dumb angry mobs. This includes social movements.

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