Speech 31: Rhetoric of Social Justice: Public Advocacy and U.S. Social Justice Movements

Contemporary social movements in the U.S. bear strong resemblance to those in the past in that social protests have, and continue to be, definitively rhetorical. This course focuses on theorizing the relationship between rhetoric and social movements from a historical and contemporary perspective. Our focal point will be rights-based campaigns of movements seeking socio-political legitimacy and equality. The course will also explore the pivotal role strategic communication plays in effective advocacy.

No prerequisites. Limited enrollment.

Distributive: ART

World Culture: CI

Not offered in the period from 16F through 18S.

To view the ORC description, follow this link: Speech 31

This course provides a critical overview of the role rhetoric plays in the advancing of social justice with a perspective on the rhetoric of social movements. Charles Morris and Stephen Browne note in Readings on the Rhetoric of Social Protest that "to study the rhetoric of social protest is to study how symbols—words, signs, images, music, even bodies—shape our perceptions of reality and invite us to move accordingly." This course is grounded in a rhetorical perspective so we will concentrate on the types of messages that social movements create. We also will be developing our skills as advocates and critics of issues related to political advocacy. In other words, our primary goal is to focus on how people communicate with and about social justice as rhetorical agents attempting to change public culture or what many call "the public sphere." Specifically, we will emphasize what have been the constraints—both the limitations and the possibilities—of rhetorical social protest.

The lessons of the past are also key to understanding the conditions of possibility for change today. For that reason, this course will focus on the communication of a wider range of historically important cases of 20th and 21st century social movements. The class will be structured to address different aspects concerning the study of social movements.  We will focus on the theoretical aspects of how social movements are defined, and the communicative strategies used to make it different from other types of communication. We will then examine rhetoric and social change in discourse from historical American social movements, including the American Civil Rights movement, Chicano movement, and LGBT Movement. The second part of the quarter will be spent studying the communication of contemporary social movements, including the immigration-rights movement and environmental justice advocacy. Lastly, we will examine the cultural and strategic dimensions of communication by highlighting the variety of tactics and tools employed by social movement activists. Through this course you should obtain sufficient mastery of the theoretical literature to ground your own research on social movement campaigns.

Course Goals

  • To define social movements from a communication perspective and identify the primary characteristics of the rhetorical strategies of a social movement.
  • To articulate the role of social movement communication in creating and resisting social change. 
  • To review the contemporary and historical social movement rhetoric of marginalized communities resisting oppression including: the Civil Rights movement, Chicano/a movement, LGBT rights movement, environmental justice movement, immigrant-right's movement, and other forms of student activism.
  • To explain and evaluate the central role of rhetoric in democratic activist practices. 
  • To apply concepts, theories and skills of communication to contemporary social movement discourses.