A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Museum of London as part of my MA in Media, Campaigning and Social Change, where we were fortunate enough to be given access to archives from the Suffragette movement. We looked at scrap books, newspaper clippings, flyers and handwritten letters written by imprisoned Suffragettes to family members. As well as being an emotional experience, it was very thought-provoking. These women made monumental sacrifices to fight for the cause they believe in, namely votes for women. Some of them also committed violent acts. Which made me wonder: how far should we go for the causes we are passionate about? Can violence in campaigning ever be acceptable?

Image result for suffragette violence
Image from socialistreview.org.uk

Joachim Raschke said that “A movement that does not make it into the media is non-existent” (1985: 343). Although not literally true, it clearly is the case that a movement or campaign without media attention will lack any widespread resonance, and will struggle to elicit popular support. Whilst the peaceful movement for female suffrage had made gains and attracted attention by the 20th century, some women felt that the movement needed to go further. Thus, under the leadership of the Emmeline Pankhurst, the ‘Suffragettes’ (a name given to them by the Daily Mail) were born.

Mrs. Pankhurst, along with her daughters and many others, became involved in arson, window smashing and other violent attacks – although never on human life. Consequently, many of the women were arrested, treated brusquely by the police and imprisoned. This won them a great deal of media coverage, and increasing sympathy and support from the public.

Image result for suffragette arrests newspaper
‘Violent Scenes at Westminster, Where Many Suffragettes Were Arrested While Trying to Force their Way into the House of Commons’ – The Daily Mirror, 1910

Of course, by gaining media coverage, campaigns and movements hope not only to garner attention and support as an end in itself, but in doing so, to effect tangible change. Rucht (2004: 27) has pointed out that quantitative mobilisation is crucial to impressing and influencing policy makers and thus, the mass media becomes crucial in garnering public attention and support for the cause. We can see parallels in contemporary movements: the Black Lives Matter campaign has been criticised for its use of violent acts such as window smashing (see video below), yet has become one of the best-known movements for social change in recent memory.

These movements are not comparable, as violence was part of the official strategy of the Suffragettes and not that of Black Lives Matter – but there are similarities. Both were concerned with getting far reaching media coverage to elicit sympathy, support and ultimately policy change – and violence has been part of their success in this endeavour. R. H. Turner wrote that “A combination of threat and appeal serves to gain attention and to create a sense of urgency necessary to overcome the resistance of acknowledging protest” (1969: 821). It would be a much bigger project to assess precisely what the role of violence in these and other movements has played. However, perhaps some violence, in conjunction with clearly defined and popular goals, is a necessary evil in order to be seen, heard and listened to.

 

References:

Raschke, J. (1985) Soziale Bewegungen. Ein historisch-systematischer Grundriß, Frankfurt-On-Main: Campus.

Rucht, D. (2004). ‘The Quadruple “A”: Media strategies of protest movements since the 1960s.’ in Van de Donk, W., Loader, B. D., Nixon P.G. and Rucht, D. (eds) (2004), Cyberprotest: New media, citizens and social movements. London and New York: Routledge.

Turner, R.H. (1969) ‘The public perception of protest’, American Sociological Review 34, 6:815–831.

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Violence in Campaigning: a negative or a necessity?

  1. As you say, violence seems to be “a necessary evil in order to be seen, heard and listened to”. At the same time, though, it doesn’t attract positive media representation, so this choice ends up being like a dog chasing its tail.
    I talked about this in one of my posts (you can find it here: https://freedomsakeblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/to-be-or-not-to-be-on-tv/), where I explain that the No Expo movement reputation was completely ruined by a guy who in an interview for a TV network said: ““If I don’t smash a bank it means I’m a ars****”.
    The media look for uproar and spectacular images, but campaigners need to be extremely careful with the game the media play: they don’t fight on equal terms.

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    1. This is definitely true, but then we come back to the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” debate – can it be beneficial for campaigns to get media coverage even when it is ‘bad press’? Whilst it may damage some campaigns that already have a high profile, it might be the only chance that some have of being seen.

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  2. This was a really nice summary of how a visit to a museum can get your mind wandering about the extremes of campaigning. It personally got me thinking how far would I go towards a cause I am passionate about – I can speak confidently that it would not include acts of violence. As a campaign leader, I couldn’t expect that of anybody in a strategy we created. If it is a necessary evil, I wonder if I’d be out of luck!

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  3. This topic really intrigues me. In an essay that I wrote regarding the media’s representation of protest I discussed how Pussy Riot and Femen also used shock tactics/ iconography to perpetuate and subsequently disseminate their feminist ideals. Rucht argues that these kinds of radical protests ‘cannot hope to receive positive resonance.’ However, simply because Rucht, and the societal majority, perceives it to be “negative” does not mean it is so. These groups may perceive “positive” resonance/ portrayal as the provocation of debate and unify and/ or appeal to potential supporters.

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