Rethinking the Dilemmas of Political Expression

Picture of By Justin Yeung

By Justin Yeung

In a considerably mediated public sphere, the mediapolis, we seek to receive and convey narratives through mediated channels. Identities, rituals, ideologies, and discourses are expressed through the Internet, the almighty social media. The rise of social media has led to a pivotal inquiry in modern civil society: What is considered effective and real activism? Slacktivism and clicktivism have been criticized as politically passive and thus, destructive for left-wing social movements. Would it also be possible that the supposed passivity and meaningless of such movements would be as influential as every type of physical activism?

“This space of the Mediapolis is a mediated space, and the space of appearance is provided by the screen and the speaker.” – Roger Silverstone in Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis

Different forms of expression

Social scientists are indulged in the journey of searching for regularities in the forms of political expressions. For instance, James S. Ormrod categorized social movements into three extremities of modern social movements, namely hostile crazes, hedonism, and institutionalism.

There is no right or wrong, the only thing that matters is their respective influence on the momentum of social movements. Accordingly, this article aims at providing plenty of dilemmas of distinct perspectives that protestors face and challenging some of their concerns.

Symbolic vs. direct action

Before delving into the material-virtual discussion, let us first look at the most important yet debatable forms of protests – aesthetics and direct actions.

Symbols and aesthetics stay the most prominent elements in modern-day protests. In Ratliff’s and Hall’s paper, Practicing the Art of Dissent: Toward a Typology of Protest Activity in the United States, literal symbolic, aesthetic, and sensory expressions are considered the most adopted strategies in the United States. The tactics people exercised consist of street theater, dancing, chanting, musical performances, so on and so forth. Similarly, tactics of solemnity and sacredness were also widely recognized by the researchers, candle-lighting and prayers are cases in point. Sacredness is often embraced in religious nations. For instance, in Sri Lanka, monks went on a hunger strike against the extreme Islamic bombing back in 2019.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are direct near-violent strategies. Direct strategies are a rather abstract concept in the sense that these actions can be undergone mildly, but also in exceptionally violent ways. In the same paper, civil disobedience, confrontation, and collective violence are classified into different categories. The strategies taken are contextual and dependent on whether the action is generally accepted by their fellow protestors. On one hand, protestors can simply build blockades, on the other hand, they can attack with a Molotov.

Material vs. virtual

The line of demarcation between the material and the virtual is intricately blurry. With the growing permeability of virtual spaces, political expressions are transferred from the material world to the virtual world back and forth. So while this is the case, then to what extent does the virtual world supplement or even replace the material world?

The Arab Spring and The Gezi Park Protests are notable for their use of the Internet for information consumption, production, and distribution. The former is particularly worth mentioning as one of the earliest Twitter Revolutions. With regards to the latter, a myriad of cyber aesthetics was created by Turkish democracy devotees, like videos and music on YouTube.

There is, however, a misconception of the interdependence of successful movements and Internet reactivity. For example, the fact that Farsi was not even supported at the time of Arab Spring challenges the hyper-apotheosis of Twitter. When we take a closer look at the Arab Spring, the power of word-of-mouth is in fact overlooked. In this case, virtual use of activism would be considered merely a tool for outwards propaganda and global awareness instead of local mobilization.

This is a pivotal conundrum. Given that symbolic and aesthetic expressions are amplified through the ease of content creation and distribution, the proportion of symbolic tactics will hypothetically climb up. Meanwhile, dissidents, be it centrist or radical, have realized the inefficiency of symbolic political expression. This leads to the third concern of modern social movements – formalism.

Formalist vs. pragmatic

The overwhelming amount of symbolic and aesthetic movements leads to the problem of formalism – the detachment of motives and actions. A plethora of protestors take the stance that “peaceful and symbolic protests do nothing”. Consequently, violence is to be sought to resolve their social problems. If peaceful and symbolic movements are discarded by dissidents, are we also disproving the efficiency of a majority of the actions we have taken in the past, at least in the context of the States?

Worse still, even violent movements can be formalized and disconnected from the goals of the movements. Directing attacks towards infrastructure for the sake of doing so yields no positive outcomes at all. The militarization of uMkhonto weSizwe, though, is justified as peaceful disobedience can no longer withhold atrocious policies in South Africa. As Ilan Pappé stressed in On Palestine, targeting ideologies instead of policies contributed to the successes of the anti-apartheid movements in the Western societies. In plain text, purely focusing on superficial political representation and infrastructure without clarification of the backgrounds, purposes, and targets of such would not bring about the victory of the dissidents. Instead, it requires a comprehensive and pragmatic approach.  

Daily-life attachment and pan-politicization

What is, then, a comprehensive and pragmatic approach? Throughout the history of revolution, the infiltration of subversion in daily life has always been of consideration.

The daily tension of life and system plays a huge role in social struggle, specifically in authoritarian regimes, as Havel repeatedly mentioned in The Power of the Powerless.  Hence, we have the fourth perspective to look at protests – attachment to daily life.

It is of utmost importance to acknowledge the power of struggles in our ordinary lives. For example, a boycott against Israeli exports to Europe under the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) movement has led to a 46% decrease in foreign investment in Israel in 2014. In Hong Kong, a similar phenomenon has occurred: Dissident attempts to avoid businesses with pro-government backgrounds. Daily-life attachment is necessary because it reminds us that we are living in an immensely imbalanced power structure. It tells us who we are targeting, what we should be doing, and who we are.

Social media movements are often regarded as the most, if not too, accessible means of ordinary-life-attached activism. Nevertheless, how disruptive is a click of the share button? As a result, daily-life attachment is constantly under criticism.

The most crucial, yet, perhaps, the most controversial aspect of daily-life attachment is the cowardice it manifests.

Firstly, daily-life attachment does not ensure a revolution. If we are to look closer at rebellions due to daily tensions, dissidents are playing the game of the rulers. Simply put, we are struggling within the system of the authoritarian. Then, imaginably, blatant alterations of the rules in the games are at arm’s length. In addition, daily-life attachment does not bring revolutionary actions. Citizen-level pan-politicised politico-economic choices, like the BDS and the Yellow Economic Circle, fail to impose solid damage to their respective sovereign states, namely Israel and China. The most crucial, yet, perhaps, the most controversial aspect of daily-life attachment is the cowardice it manifests. Face-to-face confrontation with the police force takes a whole lot of courage, but what harm can boycotting TikTok cause to your life? Arguably, nothing. Consequently, we are nothing but just ordinary citizens willingly accepting oppression.

It is not a dichotomy

The puzzle of the previously mentioned dilemmas has left us an important question: Which is the better strategy? The answer is: There is none.

Dissidents at times look for a binary direction to success – either this or that. People thought that social media movements would replace physical movements, but it turns out to be false. It was also predicted that violent movements are the only way to overthrow a totalitarian state and transit into a democratic state. This turned out to be false as well. Ironically, both virtual and violent types of activism have been proved to be efficient at some points in human history.

This article does not provide a solution to the question but, hopefully, instead it triggers a few reflections on our current attitudes towards political expressions. If we are to investigate the efficiency of virtual social movements in the mediapolis, we must look into how the material and the virtual world interact. Furthermore, it is irrational to eliminate alternative possibilities along the way of emancipation. Henceforth, a plurality of methods must be adopted, implemented, and evaluated constantly.

Cover: Aesthetics at Protest: Visual Culture and Communication at Gezi Park

Edited by: Gaukhar Orkashbayeva

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