Students for a Democratic Society’s 1962 Port Huron Statement begins with these words: “We are people of this generation…”
During a public messaging training that I recently led for a student group, I reflected back to the group my observation that members often referred to themselves as activists — in both internal conversations and external messages. I asked them what purpose it served to label themselves as activists as opposed to students.
Students for Democratic Society might have begun their historic Port Huron Statement with, “We are student activists…” But instead they began, “We are people of this generation…”
Interestingly, the label “activist” appears in the over 25,000-word document only once, where it is one label listed amongst several that refer to types of participants in the “broadest movement for peace in several years.”
…it includes socialists, pacifists, liberals, scholars, militant activists, middle-class women, some professionals, many students, a few unionists.
The word “activism” also appears just one time. And here it is fully contextualized:
…the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism.
Search result for “activism” and “activist” in Google Ngram Viewer
I’ve been critical of the label activist, insofar as it marks a content-less distinction between the active participant and the society. I’ve argued that an emphasis on commonality (and strategic navigation of labels and language) is more efficacious for aspiring political challengers.
I have not (yet) conducted a systematic analysis of the Port Huron Statement, but preliminarily it seems to me that the document displays such an orientation toward emphasizing commonality. The document’s use of “we” pronouns tends to point to an inclusive we instead of—or at least far more often than—to an exclusive we (i.e., a “we” that defines, distinguishes or differentiates movement participants from other groups or institutions or from society itself). A few examples of what “we” refers to:
- “people of this generation”
- “we as a national entity”
- “what we are doing as a nation”
- “as Americans concerned with the conduct of our representative institutions”
The document is, of course, critiquing American institutions of power—this is its purpose—but its authors frame themselves as part of the society upon which these institutions rest. Society is the starting place.
Later that changed, as Tom Hayden noted last year on the 50-year anniversary of the Port Huron Statement:
During the Vietnam years, SDS abandoned the Port Huron vision as “too reformist” and turned instead to more radical ideologies of resistance and revolution.
But digging into all that is well beyond the scope of today’s post!
Two other things must at least be mentioned in a post pertaining to the Port Huron Statement’s inclusivity and broad appeal: 1) the non-inclusive sexist language (e.g. “man in the twentieth century”), and, 2) the concern with the label Left, particularly in one section of the document. Of course the label of Left frames a polarity. However, the term is not thrown around as a casual shorthand identifier. The statement describes the contents of Left, only using the label in an aspirational discussion of what a relevant “new Left” might look like.
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