Rhetoric and Social Protest Essay

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Research in rhetoric and social protest strives to discover how organized, uninstitutional forces use symbols and symbolic actions to promote or resist change in societal norms and values. Its focus ranges from interpersonal to mass communication, the colonial period to the present, moderate to radical elements, and formal  discourses to the rhetoric of the streets.

Rhetorical scholars view protestors as facing nearly impossible rhetorical situations in which they are viewed as illegitimate, systematically denied access to normal channels and procedures, and have severely limited powers of reward and punishment. Confrontation is inevitable because clashes between protestors and institutions and their supporters occur in zerosum situations in which one party’s relative gain is the other’s relative loss. Rhetorical struggles become moral battles for power and legitimacy to define and control the social order. Institutions are loath to share powers with forces they see an uninformed at best and evil at worst, and protestors provoke confrontations and violent reactions to reveal how ugly institutions really are.

Those studying rhetoric and social protest claim that confrontational strategies in social protests are not only inevitable but essential for successful outcomes of protestors and the development and improvement of society. Protestors resort to coercive rhetoric to persuade target audiences that dire consequences are likely, if not certain, to make these audiences feel forced to comply and convinced of the protestor’s probable capacity and intent to follow through with threatened action. The focus is to understand them as opportunities for social growth and progress, adaptation, and evolution.

A functional approach sees rhetoric as the agency through which protestors perform necessary functions that enable organized efforts to come into existence, to meet oppositions, and perhaps to succeed in bringing about or resisting change. Studies focus on the channels protestors use to transmit their messages to believers, nonbelievers, and the opposition and to sustain their efforts. Social protestors have always sought access to ‘new media,’ starting with the printing press and moving on to the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, Internet, and now social media.


  1. Morris, C. & Browne, S. (eds.) (2006). Readings on the rhetoric of social protest. State College, PA: Strata.
  2. Stewart, C. (1980). A functional approach to the rhetoric of social movements. Central States Speech Journal, (31), 298–305.
  3. Stewart, C., Smith, C. A., & Denton, R. (2007). Persuasion and social movements, 5th edn. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.

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