How to erase identities and make everyone bad guys

A couple of months ago, I posted about the politics of representation. I found the observation that representation in the media can involve “crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power” particularly striking. What you see here is me trying to work out the process of how it happened in the suffrage movement.

Here’s an admittedly simplistic table of differences between suffragists and suffragettes. Of course, it’s not that simple – see Sandra Holton (1986) for more – but for the purposes of this argument, let’s run with this.

Suffragists Suffragettes
considered the more inclusive term members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament prepared to engage in direct action

However, what I’ve found in the texts I’m working with looks a bit more like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

I found that suffragette and suffragettes were comparatively low frequency terms and didn’t have many words associated with them. Instead, there were lots of words associated with suffragist and suffragists – even the direct action words like disturbance*, disorder, outrage*, violence and crime* which I then focused on. This seemed out of keeping with the historiography.

What seems to happen is that there’s a process where the two are conflated:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Galtung and Ruge (1965) work out a set of principles they call “news values”. These decide how likely it is that something will be reported as news, and include factors such as whether the incident forms part of a pre-existing narrative, how recent it was. how unusual it was and so on. Some of the relevant factors to this are conflict, negativity, personalisation and continuity: basically, well-known suffragettes scuffling with the police and getting arrested is more interesting to newspapers than a deputation of nice ladies handing in a petition to their MP.

Therefore, because of news values, the stuff about the constitutionalist approach gets erased:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Because we’re now not talking about constitutionalists, it doesn’t make sense to characterise a group by its opposition to constitutionalists, so that can go too:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Ta-da! You have now ended up with something like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

This, if you’re in a position of power, is pretty awesome. If you can label everyone in the suffrage movement as violent and dangerous, you don’t need to listen to their concerns about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about ill-treatment in prison and police brutality. Hurrah!

The suffrage movement is unusual because the term suffragist, in the Times at least, comes to mean something very different to how it was understood amongst those within the movement. However, I think the process – of conflating a range of motivations, organisations and individuals under one term, erasing the less newsworthy bits, using the term in such a way as to imply it still covers the full breadth of these motivations, organisations and individuals, then dismissing everyone as irresponsible and destructive – is still very relevant today.

As I write this, there are riots in Tottenham, Wood Green, Enfield, Brixton, Walthamstow, Hackney and possibly Peckham. The people involved are being described as looters, protesters and rioters. In light of what I’ve illustrated here, I wonder what’s being erased through using these descriptions. Obviously it’s in the interests of those in power to portray those involved as vandals, thieves and general undesirables – it stops them having to pay attention to legitimate concerns…about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about police brutality.

References:
Galtung, J & Ruge, M. 1965. The Structure of Foreign News. The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers. Journal of Peace Research, vol 2, pp 64-91
Holton, S. 1986. Feminism and Democracy: Women’s suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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One Comment

  1. Definitely in Peckham – my sister was on the phone to my mother, just going down to the shops, and ended up having to retreat ahead of rather a lot of broken glass and policemen and such.

    But yes. The rhetorical strategy looks only too familiar.

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