Activist linguistics

Activist linguistics, as I see it, does not mean that the researcher skew her or his findings to support one group or one ideology or another. Nor does it mean that a famous linguist use her or his fame to support causes. Rather, an activist linguistics calls for researchers to remain connected to the communities in which they research, returning to those settings to apply the knowledge they have generated for the good of the community and to deepen the research through expansion or focus.

O’Connor, P. E. (2003). “Activist Sociolinguistics in a Critical Discourse Analysis Perspective”. In G. Weiss and R. Wodak (Eds) Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity. Basingstoke: Paulsgrave Macmillan

Me, at dawn, holding a placard reading "Save Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences" in International Phonetic AlphabetThis is something I’ve been thinking about.

In some ways, my PhD research area is a deeply personal thing. It might be about a social movement and people and events a hundred years ago, but it encompasses areas that I care deeply about: gender equality, the theory and practice of protest, marginalised and disenfranchised groups, the interaction between ideology and practical legislative change. The photo is one of the more visible acts of protest I’ve done recently – it was taken on a cold winter’s morning before I went to London to protest about cuts to arts, humanities and social sciences. That experience led me to write this post.

I worried quite a lot about whether my personal politics would affect my research for the worse. Would it make me too sympathetic, unable to see the flaws in direct action? Would I end up hopelessly over-identifying with the subjects of my research? Would my thesis become a paean to the suffrage movement? Would I, too, end up setting fire to a boathouse? Worrying thoughts indeed.

But now I’ve started wondering about neutrality. Is actual neutrality even possible? I’m not convinced it is; to me it seems that you can simply not know enough about an issue to have an opinion, or that your apparent neutrality is itself a stance. I’m reminded of debates within feminism where those allegedly objective about it are actually hostile – there are some things it’s hard not to have an opinion about, and if you’ve chosen to distance yourself from an issue you’ve still made a choice about how you’re going to engage with it.

As I said in my post on direct action, being a protester has given me an insight into the kind of things the suffrage movement encountered. When I wrote that post it was police violence; as I write now, it’s the tensions between different groups and factions who are (roughly) campaigning for the same things.

As O’Connor suggests, things like this are going to inform one’s research whatever I do and my issue is one of how to allow it to do so, how to acknowledge it and be honest about its influence. There are different ways to engage with one’s activism and individual politics, and it’s clear which she thinks is best. As well as making for better research, I think the researcher also owes something to the community in which they’re embedded. As an undergraduate I was staggered by Jennifer Coates’ admission that she covertly recorded her friends for material. At the time it was an acceptable methodology to make such recordings; now it is most definitely not. I’m not studying NSAFC (if I was I’d tell them!) but that earlier post was still an attempt to apply my research to my community, to give back something – kind of connecting my experience as a researcher with my experience as a protester, and trying to synthesise them in to sort of whole I think O’Connor is talking about.

As a tangent, I stumbled upon Emily Davison Blues by Grace Petrie a couple of months ago. There’s a research paper in contemporary reimaginings of the suffrage movement, I know it.

Okay, I was going to go to bed at least an hour ago. Tomorrow brings more narrative theory and newsworthiness, yay?

Arson and unresolutions

Happy New Year! I’ve started the new year with a bit of arson. Not mine, I hasten to add.

I’ve been kind of struggling to find a good record of suffrage actions; part of the problem of interdisciplinary research is that if you’re basically teaching yourself a subject, there are almost certainly going to be resources well-known to ‘natives’ (for want of a better term) of the field but which you’re blissfully unaware of. It feels a bit rude to keep bothering historians with what must be rather inane questions, but happily I’ve found Andrew Rosen’s Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1903-1914 and that’s doing rather nicely to flesh out the spring and early summer for me. He calculates that the WSPU caused an estimated £145,025 of damage between March and August; out of curiosity I looked for a way of converting this into current values and to my joy, found not only a huge list of resources but an online converter. It gives two figures depending on which dates you plug in:

In 1910, £145,025 0s 0d would have the same spending worth of today’s £8,275,126.50
In 1915, £145,025 0s 0d would have the same spending worth of today’s £6,244,776.50

It’s probably not going into the chapter, but it is useful to understand the non-suffragist reaction. I can understand why there was so much hostility directed at the WSPU both from outside and within the suffrage movement. I don’t think the feeling of “stop doing that, you’re making our side look bad!” is an unfamiliar one to activists, then as now.

Today I’ve also shuffled around some stuff on the Nottingham Students Against Fees and Cuts blog, added more photos and posted up an article. This leads in to my set of…well. I don’t do resolutions, but here are some things ‘d like to sort out this year:

  1. Better balance with my various commitments. Especially in the last few months of 2010, I was juggling LGBT trans welfare and committee stuff, protest stuff, thesis work, various jobs, German class and being the responsible one in the house. These things are all important and I don’t want to drop any of them (except for being the responsible one in the house) but I need to find a way of not stressing myself out with them.
  2. Join a dojo and get back into ju jitsu training. It’s something I enjoy, I’ve found a dojo near me that seems to offer classes on different days and the exercise will hopefully make me sleep better. I need to check that the dojo has people of a range of sizes and abilities (not so much because I can’t throw big people around, but because I don’t appreciate being thrown around as if I, too, am a big person).
  3. Be more disciplined about thesis work; stop unproductive fretting and agonising about what to do, email my supervisor before I work myself into a state, be more decisive and confident in my work
  4. Be more organised. Hah.

Does anyone else have academic-related resolutions?

Thoughts on direct action

In my research, it’s impossible not to come across issues of direct action. Earlier this year I was looking at words derived from Mutual Information for suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes. A category for direct action terms emerged from this data, and I started to look at disturbance*, outrage*, violence, crime*, disorder and incident? in more detail.

To quote from a draft of this chapter:

The terms examined in this chapter can be paired – two relatively high frequency, non-specific terms disturbance* and outrage*, two low frequency, specific terms violence and crime* and two terms, disorder and incident?, which are both used to describe suffrage campaigners’ interactions with non-suffrage supporters, but differ in which groups they are used in conjunction with. Reports shy away from using violence and crime* to describe suffrage campaigning and instead use more ambiguous terms such as disturbance and outrage; the actions encompassed by disturbance and outrage include the disruption of meetings and heckling as well as more destructive acts such as ‘fire outrages’ and bombs.

The damage and destruction was largely confined to property. If there was physical aggression, it was nearly always faced by the suffrage campaigners than posed by them. The Times describes “large hostile crowds”, “active hostility to suffragists”, several “scenes of great disorder” and meetings broken up by “young roughs”. The texts I am working with at the moment describe “disorderly scene[s]” at suffragist meetings, but on closer examination the meetings themselves seem to have been highly organised and the disruption was due to members of the public, who formed a “hooting and jostling mob”, hassled the speakers and attempted to hustle them out of the park.

And then the Browne Review was announced. As a young researcher in arts, humanities and social sciences (I might declare which area I’m in if someone decides to fund me), I am worried about what this might mean for these areas. I’m worried about the Education Maintenance Allowance, AimHigher and Lifelong Learning UK being scrapped with no clear information on what will replace them. I’m worried about the privatisation of Higher Education. These cuts to education take place against a background of cuts to public services, and it’s difficult not to interpret them as ideological.

I was not the only one to feel like this, and direct action began to seem rather closer to home. Students marched on the 10th November, 24th November and 9th December. The argument that “the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics” began to be heard again and yet again, damage to property was positioned as worse than damage done to people’s lives.

With other students at my university, I engaged in peaceful direct action. I made my placard, marched, chanted, and was duly kettled for around six hours. I’m pretty sure that this video is from where I was kettled. Protesters were injured – a woman beaten and racially abused by police, a man nearly died after being beaten and Green and Black Cross has an appeal for witnesses. People found being inside a kettle a “shocking experience”. There are photos of the day (link 1, link 2) but I’m not sure how well they capture most protesters’ experience – the vast majority were not hurling paintbombs and setting benches on fire.

Parliament still voted to allow an increase in tuition fees.

There are criticisms of the focus of reporting, criticism of kettling tactics and outrage over the state (and state-sanctioned) response to these protests. I am confident that more criticisms will emerge.

There are things I will take from this on a personal and political level, but at the moment I’m trying to work out what I can take from this as a researcher in direct action.

One of these things is the sheer courage it takes to engage in direct action. I can understand why people may be ambivalent towards militant direct action in the suffrage movement – at times it can come across as misdirected or petty. But it takes bravery to demonstrate when you know this could lead to police violence against you.

A second point is about disenfranchisement. Many of those on the demonstrations were young and without a political voice. Demonstrating – being physically present at the gates of Parliament – was one of the few ways open to them to get their demands heard. While these people are excluded on the basis of youth – a temporary condition, rather than the more fixed one of sex – it still shows how easily those not able to vote can be ignored by government.

A third is about the nature of direct action. There is a fair amount of discussion going on about what direct action should encompass. There are calls for peaceful demonstrations, candle-lit vigils, writing to MPs…but these have been going on for years with no demonstrable effect. There’s a sense of frustration amongst protesters. I was marching against top-up fees in 2003 and I think these protests have partly come about because people have tried to be nice and polite only to be ignored. Suffragists, too, tried a peaceful approach – they had demonstrations and rallies, they lobbied MPs, they sent deputations to members of the Cabinet, they organised petitions. If I can feel frustrated after a mere seven years of campaigning, it makes me more sympathetic to women who’d been campaigning for over 30 years with no real progress.

A fourth is a about the fractures in a movement that can result from direct action, and the willingness for some parts of the movement to disown those who do take part in property damage. You can almost hear the ‘respectable’ protesters scrambling to distance themselves from the balaclava-clad youths clutching spraypaint and lighter fuel. No one seems to be asking why they’re engaging in such actions, yet these “bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington” are well aware of what university will cost them and are one of the most vulnerable groups: “We’re from the slums of London, how do they expect us to pay £9,000 a year uni fees? EMA is the only thing keeping us in college, what’s stopping us from doing drug deals in the street now? Nothing.”

While direct action within the suffrage movement was organised by a different demographic, there still seem to be the same split between those urging peaceful direct action – such as the NUS’s Right to Recall campaign – and those engaging in different forms of protest.

What I’d take to these protests from my research is an understanding that there’s room in a movement for lots of different forms of protest. It’s not an either/or decision between things like the Right to Recall campaign and more confrontational things like occupations, and it’s important not to fracture along these lines.

I didn’t really expect to be a participant-observer of direct action when I started my PhD, but I hope it makes me a better researcher – a less judgemental one, and one better able to understand the pressures that lead to direct action