At last week’s National Communication Association (NCA) annual conference, Penn State’s Kirt Wilson gave a moving lecture on Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict: Communicating Social Justice and Civil Rights Memory in the Age of Obama.
Responding to the “civic calling” theme of this year’s conference, Wilson praised the urged to get involved, but cautioned that we must do so wisely – first understanding “the nature of the society we are called to,” and critically interrogating the civic actions we take on its behalf.
We all know that our society is not perfect – indeed, that is why we so acutely feel a civic calling; a need to engage in the hard work of democratic living. But even with the need for such a “process-model” utopia, as Erin McKenna calls it, the entrenched inequities of our society require more than a moderate amount of collective civic work.
Wilson pointed to the innovative activism of Black Lives Matter, which seeks not only to ameliorate an immediate problem, but to fundamentally disrupt the paradigm which has supported and normalized the perpetual murder of black people.
Wilson quoted Fredrick Douglass: “Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names…and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.”
Black slavery still exists today, Wilson argued, but we call it by other names. The school-to-prison pipeline; the new Jim Crow; police-community relations.
When we act, when we respond to the civic calling of our times, we must do so with a critical eye to the institutions which shape our society and the how our actions will affect them.
Black Lives Matter has come under fire for the disruptive nature of their protests; for breaking with the protest approach of their 1960s peers.
But Wilson made a compelling argument for that shift in strategy. The civil rights movement made tremendous advances, but it did not end the insidious remnants of slavery and oppression. Slavery only changed its name.
The only way to truly change this institutionalized oppression is to disrupt the system, to change the paradigm.
Wilson argued that the radicals of the 60s “marched because the only life affirming response to death and to slavery is to resist.” Today’s young activists organize out of a similar need.
“Black life matters,” Wilson said, “because people are dead and they didn’t have to die. And more are going to die tomorrow.”
That is why we resist.