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News ::
Was ist der punk?
16 May 2002
A post-Festival del Pueblo commentary on the usage of rhetoric and language in activism, with slight tinges if grumbling over the prolonged and tragic relationship of punk rock and activism.
Was ist der Punkt?

Chances are that you, the reader, along with the majority of the populace that cannot comprehend my lame attempt at constructing a witty title, are staring at those words at the top of the page, scratching your metaphorical head, and breathing a collective “huh?”
Or perhaps you are subconsciously tensing, dreading yet another long and pointless nit picking diatribe about the “true meaning of punk rock” that is currently being fiendishly diluted by _________ (insert preferred target), written in an unnecessarily self-righteous tone and without the benefit of a spell check. More likely, if you are anything like the majority of sound bite fed, commercially induced ADD-suffering America, you have long since stopped to wonder about the meaning of the phrase. After all, it was over three sentences ago – and you have “this condition.” I mean – we all have this condition.
In the intermediary between the phrase and the explanation the meaning has been passed over, discarded, ignored, and frankly not cared about.
And that’s the point.
That initial sentence, my lame attempt at constructing the German equivalent of “What’s the point?” holds within it the essence of the quandary constantly experienced by that broad range of people grouped loosely under the heading of political activists. That problem, found among all political strains and ideological colors, is the failure to communicate ideas and concepts in a language that effectively reaches the audience. Far too often the meaning is lost, missed, passed over or ignored as people fail to understand what appears to them as a foreign language. Quite literally they are left asking, “What’s the point?” – if they bother to ask at all.
Political speech, like any other form of human language, is an attempt to communicate in a way that will be understood by other people. But political speech must do more than just be understood, it must be prepared in a way that is not only understandable, but persuasive to an audience who very often will hold values significantly different then the author. If we, as people who possess social and political ideas that we wish to communicate, continue to express them in a way that not only fails reach the audience, but alienates them as well, it would be just as effective an endless discussion with an empty room. It’s pointless.
The time has come to develop a style of rhetoric and persuasion that will cause people to listen rather than to ignore, or to dismiss as the blathering of the uniformed. Effective rhetoric brings out and enhances the thought being communicated, not as a means of trickery or deception, but as a consequence of the realization that since everyone does not think alike, they will not respond to your words in the way you had intended them. Such a process does not change the meaning of what is being said, but will serve to make it possible for the thoughts to register, rather to be dismissed as incomprehensible scribblings in a foreign language.
The prime goal in creating a rhetorical style is reducing the amount of social distance between the writer and the audience – that linguistic divide that separates the thinking of the author and the reader. Certain words, phrases, and ideas are perceived as foreign (although perhaps not at the conscious level), and therefore easily dismissed. For example, words like imperialism and fascism – which, although they might hold the precise meaning that you intend to get across, very often have other connotations that people will focus on, ignoring the intended meaning. It’s one task to convince someone that Rudy Guliani or George Bush are abusing their power, its another thing to tell them that they’re running a fascist police state.
Such language does not work because it threatens the audience’s self-perception. Human beings possess a strong tendency, to say the least, to ignore ideas and concepts that threaten their self-perception, their self worth, and the values they hold on to. People do not like being told that they are stupid, being deceived, or that they have their hands soaked with the blood of innocents. They do not want to think that they are aiding in destruction or abetting disease. For the most part the majority of America attaches positive feelings to the nation and the imagery associated with it. Anything that threatens who they see themselves as is easily tossed aside and ignored.
A much more effective tactic is to argue in terms of the existing values and beliefs that are held the general populace, or at least that are claimed to be held. Point out the gap between the stated ideals and the actions that took place. For instance, discuss the doctrines of the equality of all men versus the very real racist history of the US – or cite the numerous statements made by Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin that sound as if they came out the mouth of current day radicals. Cite the 1948 UN Declarations of Human rights, which was signed by the US, regardless of how John Ashcroft may act like it wasn’t. The usage of ideas from figures that are familiar helps to break down the barrier between thoughts that seem as if they were spoken by “them” – which are generally concepts that are not held by “us.”
Make sure to cite sources for facts and figures. This may seem like its’ unnecessary, but it’s important to establishing validity. The public, through repeated exposure to unexplained and misleading facts and statistics, has developed a resistance to their usage. So, if you want to talk about the number of casualties in a given war or the number of people arrested for a certain crime, document the source that the numbers and facts are from. This is especially important if the information is from a source that commonly be though of a reputable. The citation of sources aids in communicating that the author knows what he or she is talking about, not just personal ranting, but as material than can be verified.
More often than not in the course of human history vile and questionable deeds perpetrated have not been hidden, they are recorded and available to anyone who is willing to do a little research: Columbus’ foul treatment of the natives can be found in his own logs, Clinton admitted to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the United Nations recently revealed that the 1969 vote where tribal leaders of New Guinea approved being annexed by Indonesia was a farce. It’s not that these acts have been suppressed or hidden by some nefarious conspiracy, but that the amount of information and material available is far too overwhelming to be known by any one individual, particularly in a culture like ours that tends to ignore and undervalue important lessons that could be learned from the past.
Use examples and situations that illustrate the absurdity of the current political order. Very often the image that communicates how idiotic a policy may be is much more effective and remembered then a thorough and detailed (read: boring) analysis of it. Jonathan Swift knew this when he argued against British occupation by claiming that they were effectively eating the poor. Activists from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty used such a method in 1995, when in response to an official’s comment that the poor could make due with welfare cuts by haggling with store owners, they descended upon stores with 21.6% coupons. The absurd example shows rather than tells the audience the flaws in the current political order.
And above all, avoid coming off as an intellectual zealot. The history of failed political movements is filled with nitpicking arguments of fanatics who forfeited their chance to engage the public in genuine dialogue because they were too busy fighting out over differences between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front. Such Orwellian topics may matter to ivory tower intellectuals and Monty Python fans, but to the rest of the world it amounts to another round of intellectual and political masturbation. Arguing in such a way will only reach those who already agree with you, and puts off the very people who you should being try to reach, which is hardly the goal of political speech.
Arguments that fail to reach the intended audience are useless. There is a scene in the play “The Chairs” by the existential writer Gene Ionesco, where an elderly couple, growing close to the end of their life, decides to gather together a crowd of guests to whom they will impart their knowledge and experiences. But, as they stand in the room unaware that they are addressing an empty room, they kill themselves, and leave their message to an orator, who is a deaf mute. If writing is to be more than the futile oratory to an empty room, it is mandatory that we learn to speak in a way that will get across the meaning that we intend in a form that reaches the audience.
And that’s the point.
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