When symbolism, rhetoric, and discourse are not enough

This is a proposal for a conference paper and/or article I plan to write:

The Future of Social Protest: When symbolism, rhetoric, and discourse are not enough

On February 14, 2018, a mass shooting was committed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen people were killed and seventeen more were wounded. A protest in the form of a National School Walkout occurred on March 14. This was the first major student-led gun-law-reform protest. This seventeen-minute walkout (in honor of the 17 victims) was a symbolic act that gained media attention, but the long-term efficacy of this kind of symbolism is uncertain. In other words, symbolism or symbolic action, as a kind of discourse, has definite limits.

Symbolism belongs to the larger category of discourse, and discourse alone is not enough. Since 1970s, thinkers in the humanities and social sciences have been very concerned with discourse, and this trend is known as the discursive turn. Going under labels such as the cultural turn, the critical turn, the linguistic turn, the rhetorical turn, and the discursive turn, these projects have, in various ways, analyzed the ways in which individuals and collectives “construct meaning.” This trend was a turn away from the centuries-long project of discovering “natural laws” or filling in gaps in humanity’s understanding of objective reality. But for about the last 20 years, there has been growing dissatisfaction with the discursive turn. Critics maintain that the various forms of the discursive turn have, as it were, put all their eggs in the discourse basket. More recent “turns,” such as the speculative turn, the materialist turn (e.g., speculative realism, speculative materialism, objective-oriented ontology, object-oriented philosophy, new materialism, material rhetoric), the environmental turn, and the affective turn have questioned the primacy of discourse. However, some of these newer turns may be described as extensions, refinements, or corrections of the discursive turn, not wholesale rejections. In this proposed paper, I will offer social systems theory, as developed principally by Niklas Luhmann, as another alternative to, or perhaps refinement of, the discursive turn.

Applying social systems theory, I propose to analyze the efficacy of discourse, rhetoric, and symbolism in producing desired social change. Luhmann describes contemporary society as organized by function systems—the economic system, the legal system, the political system, the education system, the science system, the mass media, the art system, and so on. Each function system uses its own symbolically generalized communication medium. For the economy this medium is money; for politics, power, for science, truth; for law, legal norms.

Regarding the gun issue, we have tried truth, emotion, and various kinds of rhetoric to change people’s hearts and minds. But I will argue that money, as the medium of the economy, should be targeted, principally by boycotting manufacturers and retailers of assault weapons, along with business with ties to the National Rifle Association. This effort, using the hashtag #boycottNRA, has been quite effective. Dick’s Sporting Goods has announced it is immediately ending its sales of military-style semi-automatic rifles and is requiring all customers to be older than 21 to buy a firearm at its stores. Additionally, the company no longer will sell high-capacity magazines. Walmart, which ended sales of modern sporting rifles such as AR-15s in 2015, has announced that it is raising the minimum age for purchasing firearms and ammunition from 18 to 21. The company notes that it does not sell bump stocks, high-capacity magazines, and similar accessories. Additionally, many companies have cut ties with the NRA.

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