how language can limit tactical options

We know that movement groups adopt targets, tactics, and strategies not only because they have a good likelihood of being effective and because they are consistent with the group’s express ideological commitments, but also, often, because they are symbolically associated with people or things that are attractive for other reasons, or are symbolically opposed to people or things that are unattractive for other reasons.

—Francesca Polletta,
Three Mechanisms by Which Culture Shapes Movement Strategy:
Repertoires, Institutional Norms, and Metonymy,

(in the book Strategies for Social Change)

If we lack a strategy to achieve a political goal (within a social movement group), then by what criteria do we evaluate the success or failure of our tactics? In many of the groups I have worked with over the years, to be frank, we have not evaluated our tactics at all. And when we did, it was often without strategic criteria. Instead we often judged actions by how well they expressed the collective values of our group or subculture, rather than by how they brought us closer to achieving political goals.

This dynamic is rarely fully conscious or explicitly named in groups. No one says in an evaluation session, “I don’t see how our action moved us toward realizing any concrete goal, but it did reflect our values back to us very nicely, and therefore I think we should keep doing more of the same.”

So, what do people say? What are the processes that create group cultures that tend away from or obfuscate strategy?

In the summer of 2000 — in the heyday of the global justice movement — environmental and animal rights activists in Minneapolis were preparing for protests against the meetings of the International Society for Animal Genetics (ISAG). During one of the planning meetings folks were discussing how to get more people with children to participate in the protests. One woman suggested adding a permitted component. Others immediately derided the suggestion as a liberal idea.

A culture had been established within the group wherein the suggestion of a permitted component to the protests could not even be considered for its strategic merit, but was instead summarily dismissed because of the association of permits with the label of liberal and, more importantly, the cluster of meanings that this label conjured for the group. Liberal, for this group, meant less than radical, less than militant, less than revolutionary; a naïve, misguided approach to social change that, at best, achieves piecemeal reforms while strengthening the system and selling out the true radicals.

Within this group the word liberal referred to and carried this story without having to actually tell the story. Sociologist Francesca Polletta uses the trope of metonymy to elucidate this phenomenon. A metonymy is a figure of speech where part of thing—an aspect or attribute—stands in for the whole thing. Examples of metonymy: hand referring to help (e.g. “Can you give me a hand?”); suits referring to business people; crown referring to a king; brass referring to military officers. Activist groups and subcultures develop their own particular metonymies: words that stand in for whole stories and clusters of associated meanings. In the example I described, liberal stands in for a story about a kind of person and a tendency that the group despised.

Polletta offers several examples of such metonymies—whose meanings were particular to the given group—foreclosing groups’ tactical options, including this one from her essay in Strategies for Social Change:

…when union officials in the 1960s farm workers’ movement considered the possibility of launching boycotts and marches, they rejected such tactics as “not the union way” (Ganz 2000). “Union way” stood metonymically for a variety of things: political secularism; an unwillingness to engage in moral and emotional appeals; most importantly, an approach that was not that of the civil rights movement or a religious campaign. However, the effect of that metonymic association was to refuse tactics that could have energized the labor movement.

In It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics, Polletta elaborates how this pattern can play out in the life of a group:

…Activists count themselves in the know because they recognize the cluster of meanings associated with the term used. Such meanings are unrecognizable to those outside the group. The more the metonymic relation is referred to, the more conventional it becomes. Note, again, that the metonymy signals a cluster of terms and also that the relations among the terms are never specified. The relations are assumed to be obvious but that assumption discourages activists from considering whether the implied relations are empirically accurate.

Returning to my example—the discussion about how to get people with children involved in the above-mentioned protests—the group’s tactical options were constrained by the metonymical association of permits with the group’s story of the naïve liberal. That getting a permit might concretely help the group realize a strategic objective of attracting particular demographics (e.g. people with children) to the protest could not be considered. To even suggest applying for a permit meant that you didn’t “get it”; you didn’t understand the problem of liberals and of “playing by the rules”. Perhaps you didn’t really belong in the group.

I’m not arguing that the group didn’t have a valid critique of liberalism, piecemeal reformism, etc. The legitimacy of that critique is not the point here. What matters strategically is 1) how the association of that critique with certain tactics foreclosed the group’s options, and 2) how risky it was for group members to question the inherence of that association.

Here’s Polletta in her essay in Strategies for Social Change:

As a kind of shorthand, metonymies both assume the existence of a group for whom the shorthand makes sense, and they signal membership in the group. That makes them difficult to challenge because to do so can be interpreted as a sign of one’s ignorance and possibly one’s insecure place in the group. It is always possible to think outside canonical narratives and the tropes on which they rest. To articulate those alternatives is risky, whether in a congressional hearing or in a group of like-minded activists. [my emphasis]

In groups where some folks—particularly new folks—may not be entirely confident in articulating their ideas, this “in the know” dynamic can create an unnamable culture of conformity that inhibits strategic innovation and flexibility. Because questioning certain things might call one’s own belonging in the group into question.

This pattern of group behavior can limit a group’s tactical options, as well as their ability to evaluate the strategic value of tactics. Ironically, the same group that so adamantly dismissed the idea of obtaining a permit, also argued for a “diversity of tactics” and to use “every tool in the toolbox.” These phrases were less than genuine. They were not meant to be taken literally. Rather these terms—like the word liberal—stood in for bigger stories. What was meant is that all activists should unquestioningly accept a few activists’ use of a particular style of militant tactics, regardless of how, when or where these tactics were employed. When it came down to it, the group was unwilling to consider at least one “tool in the toolbox”—obtaining a permit—even if it may have been the most suitable tactic for achieving a strategic objective. Indeed, disparaging such tactics (and the groups that used them) was a regular conversation piece within this activist circle. As was extolling militant tactics. Both the praise and distain for these respective tactics occurred absent of any discussion of how specifically the tactics may or may not contribute to a strategy to bring the group closer to achieving political goals.

So yeah, um, keep an eye out for how metonymies might be messing with your group’s ability to candidly apprehend reality and strategize together. Did you see what I did there? Keep an eye out? Yeah, that was a metonymy.

Thanks to Francesca Polletta for working out this useful concept.

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