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Social movements require dissent, says SoCJ’s Salzano

Matthew salzano

Matthew salzanoMatthew Salzano, IDEA fellow in ethical AI at the School of Communication and Journalism, recently published an article that suggests social movements need dissent to be successful.

Salzano’s article, “Beyond participation, toward disparticipation,” was published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, considered one of the premier journals in rhetorical studies since its inception in 1915. In it, he coins the term “disparticipation,” which he defines as “as participatory, disidentifying dissent.” 

Salzano explains that movements face tensions between purity, in terms of goals and ideology, and popularity, in terms of what is achievable and fits within cultural and societal norms. 

“Do we, as participants in any particular movement, go with a radical political strategy that is most aligned with our idealistic values and our political analysis? Or do we go with a reformist strategy that falls short of some of our values, but is more likely to ‘fit in’ to current norms and policies?,” Salzano said. “Social movements often splinter because of these tensions: one faction would rather do nothing and stick to their values than find compromise, and another would rather see incremental change.” 

He explains disparticipation as a sort of release valve for these tensions. 

“From my perspective as a rhetorical theorist, both of these factions are important–sometimes radical changes actually happen, and incremental change is often motivated by loftier goals,” Salzano said. “Disparticipation is a way to take advantage of popular, reformist moments without losing the radical edge that comes with a purist commitment to values.” 

The article analyzes three examples from women’s marches in 2017 and 2019. In the first example, Salzano discusses Black feminist critiques of the Women’s march that claimed the movement had focused primarily on the concerns of white women, embodied in the iconic image of Angela Peoples

“Peoples attended the Women’s March, while holding up a sign that read ‘Don’t forget, white women voted for Donald Trump’,” said Salzano, who holds a joint appointment with the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. “Her values didn’t completely align with what the march represented, and so she disparticipated by doing something different. She did not silence her concerns and participate in the march, neither did she choose to not participate. She found something-in-between, which is what disparticipation is all about.”

Other examples of disparticipation in the article include Katelyn Burns, a trans woman who addressed transphobia at the march, and Jewish women like Rachel Sklar who addressed claims about antisemitism. 

“In our deeply and increasingly polarized country and world, understanding how social movements evolve and how people choose to engage with them is so important,” said Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the School of Communication and Journalism and executive director of the Alda Center for Communicating Science. “Matthew’s work helps us to keep these various perspectives in mind and understand how people — even those who may seem to come from very different backgrounds — can choose to engage with each other in these larger conversations and movements.”

Salzano is a scholar of rhetoric and digital culture with a particular emphasis on how digital technology, including artificial intelligence, impacts and interacts with social justice. He holds a PhD communication from the University of Maryland. 

By Menka Suresh, science communication graduate student

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