Liberal Democracy in QuestionThe Left

‘Resistance’ and Liberal Activism

The problems with using the word 'Resist'

The word “resist” has become a common term in progressive politics. Protesters and activists of all stripes take to the streets and to social media with this one-word rallying cry on their lips: “resist.” Resist the Trump Administration. Resist its attending ideology. Resist the country’s seemingly imminent “End of Days.” The word, in its fundamentally pacifist register, is a powerful one. The word conjures historical memories of emancipatory political action. The word carries the heroic weight of resistance during the Spanish Civil War. It reminds us of the French “Resistance” during World War II.

In contemporary political usage, however, the word “resist” poses two problems: one phrasal (what is the object that we resist?) the other definitional (are we withstanding a regime, or combatting a regime?). These problems, rhetorical and grammatical though they are, point to larger, more structural, issues faced by recent liberal movements, issues that have hobbled activists and precluded their ability to effectively organize themselves in the wake of the 2016 election. In his famous study, How to Do Things With Words, British language philosopher J. L. Austin writes about language in terms of “speech acts.” There he argues that words shape reality either by directing our activities, or by denoting the meaning of those activities. This piece is guided by Austin’s philosophy: words both shape our protest and help us make sense of our protest. Given this urgent relationship between language and action, as it has been so marked, the following remarks put analytical pressure on the word “resistance” and hunt for a more effective slogan for progressive activists.

Notably, I do not exempt this present essay from the critique I offer here. Whatever fault-lines I detect in the language of the left I detect in my own language as well. This discussion of the word “resist,” then, takes the first person plural as its intended audience; the “we” that I invoke refers to fellow scholar-activists who are sensitive to the ways in which language functions as a political instrument, and are eager to identify rhetorical devices that can help us press back against the Trump Administration’s emerging policy.

The Grammar of Resistance

The first problem that the verb “resist” poses relates to its intended object. “Resist” is a transitive verb, and thus (in the spirit of activism), it requires a direct object on which it forcefully acts. What are we resisting? Without an object, the motives of the movement remain unclear or diffuse. What is more, the assertion to “Resist!” has a tonal problem: without a grammatical object, the term makes it seem like we, the protesters, are resisting everything that is not us; violence, by this logic, is “out there,” something in which we ourselves are not implicated. As Hannah Arendt points out in her political tract On Violence (1970), part of becoming an effective activist requires coming to terms with the violence that we ourselves have already brought forth. This is not only to cultivate a sense of humility (though that’s helpful too), but to understand that all of our actions have consequences. It is to understand that we are all implicated, to some extent, in the political quagmire in which the country now finds itself. It is to realize that our current activism — crucial though it is—is a belated and paltry palliative to our own legacy of violence: in particular, our long and quiet acquiescence to the smooth functioning of the very systems of oppression that we now resist. This kind of consideration of our own violent histories (both individual and collective) might allow us to cultivate what Slavoj Zizek has termed an “emancipatory violence,” a violence of love — one that serves as the “birth pangs” to a new world order. Violence, understood in this context as an affect or attitude rather than an anarchic revolt, can prove socially and politically remunerative.

And so the question arises again: what is the object of our resistance? We cannot realistically “Resist Trump” because that mission is largely futile. His executive power gives us little control over his actions. How about “Resist Hate”? But that’s not right either, as the phrase further deepens the already-vast fissure that runs across party lines. Democrats, by this model, assume a kind of Nietzschean slave morality: morally superior in their decrepitude, they can only passively “resist” the all-powerful “hatred” of Republican bigots. Clearly, this is not a constructive tactic in agitating for social change, for when have such stark binaries actually healed any social wounds?

So, in this ongoing hunt for an adequate slogan of resistance, perhaps we might try invoking a particular menace. “Resist Islamophobia” perhaps? The problem with this is that in lobbying on behalf of one disenfranchised group we invariably occlude many others. We find ourselves in a kind of activist aporia; linguistically, we cannot be in two places at once. At the very moment that we proclaim our solidarity for one marginalized group, we turn our backs towards the rest.

Secondly, it seems important, as activists, to think precisely about what kind of resistance we mean when we use this word. “Resist” is defined as both a passive verb (“to withstand the force and effect of”) and an active verb (“to exert oneself to counteract or defeat.”) The former definition calls on us to withstand the Trump Presidency. To “resist” by this definition means to safeguard our own principles and morals at this dark moment of American history. The moral aspects of liberal activism seem to lie in this understanding of resistance as, at root, a defensive act. In this context, resistance acts as an antibody: if Nationalism has sickened the country with a kind of xenophobic virus, we must “resist” that virus and not let it enter our hearts. In contrast, the active definition of the verb “resist” urges us to counteract the Trump presidency through organized opposition — to actively combat legislation through demonstrations, protests, and by voting in local elections. We see, then, two related but crucially different modes of resistance: we can “resist” in a manner that is defensive and ideological, or we can “resist” through active protest grounded in concrete legislative opposition.

Activists at a Crossroads

As liberal activists, we seem to be at a crossroads as we try to figure out what we are resisting and how to resist it. As this parsing of the word suggests, my concern is that in using “resistance” so freely, we are conflating two different definitions, and tacitly suggesting that an act of withstanding the presidency is the same as counteracting the presidency, and vice versa. What emerges with this failure to distinguish are moralizing protests that seem to wage fundamentally impossible crusades for abstract causes like “justice” and “freedom.” We can see this in many of the slogans of Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign, and the symbolically heartening but politically unsatisfying Women’s March. To list several: “Love Trumps Hate”; “Love Wins”; “Hope Not Fear”; “Justice Over Comfort; Equality Over Privilege”; “You Can Try to Divide; We Will Rise and Unify;” “Hate Does Not Make America Great.”

In public, we can actively organize and oppose concrete legislation and administrative policy. On a strategic level, however, my concern is that the language of morality — as it is concealed in these kinds of “defensive resistance” — actually impedes the efficacy of activism. Many activists will understandably be skeptical of this emphasis on the functional (rather than the expressive) capacities of protest. And indeed it is cathartic to bring our deepest principles and beliefs into our activism (especially when the issues at hand carry such emotional weight). I believe that we must, however, check that very impulse, since it distracts and detracts from the efficacy of our action. “Defensive resistance” — the safeguarding of one’s morals and one’s character — cannot be demonstrated in the street, or written on a sign. That is the everyday work of citizenship, and must remain largely invisible for it to perform its necessary function. Why must defensive resistance be invisible? If “systemic violence” is invisible (that is, the massive and colliding regimes of power that prevent most from achieving their fullest human potential) its antidote, too, must be invisible. Otherwise, the problem and its cure are rendered incompatible on the sheer level of design: a picket sign to “resist” sexism is akin to putting an ice pack on a paper cut, or a band aid on a bruise.

Next Steps

In thinking about the relationship between language and activism, I have called for a clear-eyed and pragmatic relationship to the word “resist,” one that is very much in keeping with my own sense of how best to “resist” the Trump Administration at large. Language and politics, invoked at this moment of the essay as separate but related spheres, are systems that pattern and organize our everyday experience. As with many (but not all) structural issues the answer here is not to “dismantle” or “abolish” the problematic object in some kind of rhetorical or political overhaul. In terms of language, this would mean the removal of the word “resistance” from our activist vocabulary. In terms of politics, this would mean the forcible removal of President Trump: e.g. his impeachment (an aim, I will argue, that is more emancipatory in theory than in practice).

These ‘quick fixes’ are unsuitable for many reasons, but particularly because they pose their own issues. In terms of the word “resist,” however, we have seen that its multiple definitions reveal its unique affordances, affordances we would be denied if we abandoned the term altogether. By the same token, counterintuitive though it may be, my fear is that the removal of Trump from the White House would not remedy the fault lines in the country’s democracy that brought him into power in the first place. Though liberating in some (largely symbolic) ways, a premature extraction of President Trump would only leave us with a President Pence — whose policies would be much the same as that of his predecessor.

The hard thing to do as activists is to let the Trump Administration act as a kind of “cultural salience,” one that over the next four years will flush out not all, but some of the toxins that this country has harbored for centuries. Wordsworth has termed this affect “wise passivity;” I will call it “radical vigilance.” I want to conclude by suggesting that this “radical vigilance” is the most viable form of “resistance” that is available to us, and it is this slogan that should undergird our activist work.

Radical Vigilance

Radical vigilance is a kind of resistance in so far as it corresponds both to a rigorous quest for the truth, and to an abiding fidelity to facts. The project of radical vigilance, then, is deeply connected to language since it prods at the government’s narrative, tugs on its coat sleeve, forces it to elaborate and to elucidate on its blurry proclamations and dubious promises. It is this same “radical vigilance” that summons us to our own language — to words like “resist” — and forces us to sharpen those instruments as we aim them toward the future.

Radical vigilance, unlike the diffuse aims of the defensive and moralizing “resistance” that I problematized earlier in this essay, is relentlessly precise in the rhetorical devices that it mobilizes. It often takes the form of a question, rather than a statement. Not a proclamation that “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” for example, but rather a rigorous unpacking of the language of the GOP Healthcare Overhaul Plan so as to pose difficult questions at town hall forums and other local political gatherings: How exactly do Republican lawmakers plan to pay for their tax credits? It is only armed with the accrual of information that activists can intervene in the political discourses of the day, combating the Trump Administration with utterly relentless interrogation. The idea is that our questions produce, in aggregate, a sharp rebuttal to the soft claims of the Right.

There is a reason why Socrates was despised by the administrative powers of his day: in addition to the controversial nature of his critique of the polis, his methods of critique were enervating. Socrates understood that questions are terribly exhausting; the Socratic method stands in marked contrast to the action-oriented mindset of the polis, and therein we can find its timeless efficacy. By slowing down the action of the Trump Administration, rather than stopping it altogether, time is wielded as our weapon: over the course of the next four years (or, get ready for it, eight years), that which cannot be shut down must be delayed as much as possible. “Resistance,” by these terms, appears as neither an act of “withstanding” nor of “combatting,” but rather as an act of interrogation: What was that you said? Can you clarify? What precisely do you mean? Conceiving of “resistance” in this way, that is, as “radical vigilance,” we can embrace the subtle passivity embedded in the word. Resistance is not a stoppage, but a deferral: we must slow down of the country’s entropy by way of incessant analysis.

Even admitting the need to prepare for the longterm, it must be said that Donald Trump’s days in office may well be numbered. If the president is impeached in the coming year (whether due to the full and corroborated disclosure of one of the many emergent scandals with which he has been associated) our own oppositional language will need to change yet again to suit the new circumstances that emerge. “Resistance,” in other words, will need take a new form at that time, and “radical vigilance,” as it has been interpreted now, in this essay, ought to be subjected, at that time, to its own line of critique.

Liz Scheer

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