The Rhetoric of Protest

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Three people, three signs:

“I’m the autistic kid, and I’m scared.”

“I’m the neuro-typical brother, and I’m scared.”

“I’m the mother, and I’m scared.”241082_pastedImage_3.png

No, the participants in the Women’s March on Washington in January were not just whiners who were upset that Hillary didn’t win. They weren’t just a group of angry women holding vulgar signs. Okay, there were a lot of angry women, and there were vulgar signs, but those holding them would argue that they were merely responding to candidate Trump’s own language: “This p*ssy grabs back.” “Keep your laws off my [silhouette of cat.]” “Just say NO to the Groper in Chief.” “Thou shalt not mess with women’s rights. Fallopians 20:17.” And in the vein of Dr. Seuss:  “I do not like u down my shirt. I do not like u up my skirt. I do not like you near my rump.  I do not like you, Mr. Trump.” Okay, angry AND creative.

Future generations will need a good bit of context to understand some of the signs and some of the sentiments: “If only my uterus shot bullets, it wouldn’t need regulation.” “I thought we resolved this sh*t in the ‘70’s.” “Trump, urine over your head.”  We’ll let this generation’s kids grow up before we try to explain that last one.

Many of the signs were a response to the ethos of Donald Trump, his ethics or lack thereof. What sort of person had, the day before, been inaugurated? What sort of people were the marchers? How did their rhetoric reveal that? How did their actions? In Arkansas, marchers were attacked online for their violence because a bus carrying four Arkansas high school students, among others in town for the inauguration, was attacked by protestors and had its windshield broken. Some who commented on the story said that marchers should be arrested. One said that they should be shot and left dead in the street. The story and the time stamp on the video capturing the incident made clear that the episode took place several hours after the march was over. No protestors were arrested. With this one exception, none were violent.

The rhetoric of the march had a lot to do with anger, but it also had a lot to do with fear. Arguments are based on fact and hard data, but they also appeal to people’s needs and values. A friend commented on Facebook that people who had not lost any rights had no reason to protest. People who feel their rights are in jeopardy do. That was the major focus of many of the arguments summed up on signs at the march:  We are afraid of losing our healthcare.  We are afraid of the effects of climate change. We are afraid of losing ground. We are afraid of being discriminated against because we are women, black, transgender, gay, Mexican, Muslim, disabled. Thus the trio of signs with which I began.

 The march had a mission statement:

“In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.

President Trump’s response, characteristically, was a tweet: “Why didn’t these people vote?”

In large part, they did. Some voted for him. If they didn’t vote in 2016, it’s a good bet they will in 2018.

Photo Credit: Donna Winchell

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.