This work is dedicated to my grandfather, who never took anything for granted nor anybody at their word.
Keywords: “Black Lives Matter”, Slogans, Enthymeme, “Abolish the Police”
When the world awakened to the systematic targeting of Black lives by police, activists raised the call to action, and millions responded. The murder of George Floyd mobilized men, women, and children from diverse backgrounds under the banner of social justice for African-Americans. Initially, the Black Lives Matter movement saw tangible results. However, the glimmers of hope that arrived with the onset of protests in the summer of 2020 dimmed just as the protests did over time. The momentum behind Black Lives Matter fell with a decrease in “allyship” from its White supporters (Williams). During the 2020 protests, the political right capitalized on BLM’s vulnerability to the unstated premises in its messaging to undermine the central slogans, and thus the social approval, of the movement for racial equality in the eyes of the public (Olsen).
Throughout the Black Lives Matter marches in the summer of 2020, much of the messaging came from slogans, from the eponymous “Black Lives Matter,” to “No Justice, No Peace,” “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and even “Abolish the Police.” BLM (referring to the organization and its affiliates) reduced complex ideas about race into truncated statements that they could quickly relay in media, conversation, and protest. They cultivated virality through headlines and hashtags by leaving certain complicated premises of their ideology out of their simplified slogans. Used intentionally or not, this rhetorical tool, called an enthymeme, was strategic and largely successful while the implied premises were left unchallenged. However, when conservative media figures and political pundits, influential among their largely White audiences, sensed waning White support for racial remonstrations, they pounced. In this paper, I analyze how these leading conservative figures, such as Mike Gonzalez of the Heritage Foundation and Tucker Carlson of Fox News, used the power of definition to redraw BLM as antithetical to American values. Through this example, I hope to extract lessons for all protest movements and their audiences on how to effectively preempt and react to oppositional messaging to preserve the persuasive power of the protest. However, before discussing how the right’s misdirection succeeded, the enthymeme must be examined to understand its inherent vulnerability to rhetorical attack.
In rhetoric, the enthymeme is an informal method of argument because one or more premises that underlie the conclusion are left unsaid rather than stated outright. An enthymeme’s success, therefore, is predicated on whether “an audience concurs with its conclusion…without stating every premise” (Copeland 1-3). The enthymeme is interactive; the conclusions that are not read aloud are “supplied by the audience to make multiple, tentative and dynamic meanings” (Hawdon 5). Any protest movement, such as Black Lives Matter, seeks to connect with its audience to make them feel included and valued within its ideological orthodoxy. Therefore, the speaker purposefully leaves the enthymeme open to multiple interpretations while desiring the audience only to embody one. As such, the effectiveness of the device “relies on the identifications and hopes of [the] audience” and of the speaker’s “particular authority” to cultivate easily shared meaning between the two groups (Copeland 2).
The unique characteristics of the enthymeme are its strength and its weakness. To be accepted by receptive audiences, it “does not have to withstand a high test of probability” (Copeland 1). The effect of this standard is that while it only takes a small degree of confidence to convince protesters, a similarly slight doubt can invalidate it. An intrinsic reliance on the audience to fill in the “gaps” of the argument becomes a dangerous situation for the orator, as the viewers’ acceptance is on their terms (Hawdon 5). Nevertheless, while it is rare that an audience deliberately distorts the enthymeme, it is more common that “different audiences may deduce very different meanings from the same enthymeme…because the audience supplies the unstated premises” (Hawdon 6). Therefore, it is fair to say that a speaker and their audience possibly “assum[e] different premises” from the same enthymeme (Hawdon 6). This becomes an issue when polarization increases the “probability of contested meanings” (Hawdon 6) so that the premises that were assumed to be true and shared cannot be considered as such any longer.
As enthymemes are central to BLM’s promotional ideology, the unstated premises have become the battleground. The right, most notably through firebrands like Rudy Guliani, Candace Ownes, and Carol Swain argues that there is an inconsistency between the BLM belief system and its (White) supporters (Corley). Referring to racialized discourses, Hawdon states, “[a] complex stance on racial issues is inferred from a cluster of emotional ideas that resonate with certain audiences” (Hawdon 5). Those same emotion-charged statements became the slogans yelled out at rallies, with the racial ideology underpinning it taking the form of unsaid premises. This structure is what has allowed me to frame BLM via the enthymemes they employ in the protest medium of slogans. “Black Lives Matter” is a great example; the conclusion is eponymous with the unsaid premise that Black lives are currently at risk. The reason is another unsaid premise: that the police consistently target Black people. This, too, follows from the assumption that systems of white supremacy are utilized to support state-sponsored violence towards Blacks.
As you might have noticed, the more premises that are uncovered by digging deeper into socio-racial thought, the less mainstream acceptance these premises have. To illustrate, imagine a curve, representing the population of people who hold a generic interest in racial politics, and arranged by intensity of support for BLM. The curve shows that there will always be two groups of people on each end of the spectrum who hold the most “radical” ideological positions; the example for conservatives would be those who do not believe the first premise, that “Black lives are currently at risk.” However, this is a relatively uncontroversial statement, as many people understand Black people to be facing some level of danger in their lives. Let’s say the percentage of people who disagree is 10%, which would correspond to the 10 % of people in the left tail of this curve. The remaining 90% begin to diverge when they are asked “why is that.”
As the intensity of support one holds for BLM rises as one moves right on the x-axis (away from 0, or no agreement) on the curve, we can imagine that more of the curve’s population will disagree with the answer to that question, which is premise two, that “police consistently target Black people.” After all, policing is a decidedly more polarizing topic, and so it can be expected that even of the people who agree that “Black lives are at risk,” some may believe in an alternative theory that does not blame police. Say this proportion of people who think like this is 20%. With a more specific and direct premise two that proposes a fault agent (police), the percent of people who disagree is greater than in premise one. Now, 70% of people are still attached to the enthymeme, so it still has some claim to mainstream acceptance.
In the third iteration of this thought experiment, ask the 70% premise three, or that the reason why “police consistently target Black people” is because “systems of white supremacy are utilized to support state-sponsored violence towards Blacks.” Safely assuming that the 30% with previous disagreement will have no reason to change their views, the usage of loaded phrases like “white supremacy” and “state-sponsored violence” will be, and have been, divisive within groups that support BLM, especially among Whites (the theory behind “White Fragility”). So, a reasonable prediction that premise three could elicit reactions of disagreement from an additional 30% of people who hold a generic interest in racial politics while 40% agree. Going back to the curve, in this example, 60%, or a majority of the whole group, would hold some level of contention with one or more of the unstated premises. If mainstream views are held by a majority of people, then digging deeper into socio-racial thought uncovers premises that do not hold mainstream acceptance. Using enthymeme, therefore, is a practical choice at heart; it “shortens [the] argument…and resists critical inquiry into the validity of [the] suppressed premise” (Fredal 25). Framing analysis through enthymeme shows how BLM sidesteps this thought process entirely; they achieved such populous protests despite the real possibility that many people who would call themselves supporters actually possess different racial opinions than the leaders.
In regard to the conclusion of these premises, when prospective BLM supporters collectively deduced the premises of why “Black Lives Matter,” that enthymeme effectively and purposefully bound themselves to the cause. By engaging “a familiar cultural assumption or common opinion” of potential BLM supporters, for example, that police treat Black people especially violently, a statement that resonated heavily and widely after George Floyd’s death, BLM “elicit[ed] their unwitting participation in constructing the very argument by which they are persuaded” (Fredal 25). However, that became an issue when the political right redefined the organization and what it stood for. The Heritage Organization, a conservative think tank, reiterated BLM and M4BL’s (a partner organization) agenda of eliminating the nuclear family, abolishing police and prisons, and total drug decriminalization (Gonzalez). Heritage attempts to create the following enthymeme: P1) BLM has this radical, Marxist agenda, then P2) I am a BLM supporter, which leads to C) I support BLM’s radical, Marxist agenda, and then “Wait a minute!” By redefining what it means to be a supporter of BLM via focusing on their policy agenda rather than a racial reckoning, Heritage hopes this enthymeme forces some “supporters” to step back, reevaluate their BLM support, and ultimately recoil from the movement. After all, nothing in the “Black Lives Matter” enthymeme supports Heritage’s statements, which is why their goal is to replace BLM’s arguments with their own in the form of enthymeme. The premises are the battleground on which the battle for ideological alignment is fought.
Evidently, BLM’s proposals are not the issue; to the conservative right, it is the fact that these proposals are not the premises most people agreed with “when they expressed sympathy with the slogan that Black Lives Matter” (Gonzalez). Gonzalez succinctly describes the right’s response to BLM when he writes, “The goals of the Black Lives Matter organization go far beyond what most people think. But they are hiding in plain sight, there for the world to see, if only we read beyond the slogans…of the movement,” suggesting that BLM’s policy agenda indicates a conspiracy from the left that reaches far beyond racial justice to change the fabric of American society. When BLM’s non-progressive “supporters” realized that their ideal future did not look like the future BLM depicts on their website, with total drug legalization, including heroin and fentanyl, the complete abolishment of police and prisons, and the end to the traditional American family structure, the enthymeme broke down. As a result, the right’s focus on defining an unstated premise that many BLM “supporters” could not support exposed “Black Lives Matter” as a false proxy for collective identification with BLM.
“Abolish the Police” was another BLM rallying call with multiple unstated premises. The argument usually goes like this: C) Abolish the Police, P1) the police are systemically racist, P2) the police cannot be changed. Typically, activists only state the conclusion and Premise 1 openly. Premise 2 is what the receivers of this communication need to assume to be accurate, since there would be no need to Abolish the Police if police reform could be successful. The idea that the premises are the battleground, not the conclusions, bears repeating here. A Gallup study conducted in July 2020, the height of the racial reckoning, found significant support for specific police reforms, so Premise 2 ultimately never found acceptance in the public eye. The enthymeme as a rhetorical tool is only as strong as its premises are persuasive, so this data exemplifies the struggle the “Abolish the Police” enthymeme has had to work. As only 15% of Americans said they support Abolishing the Police in the same Gallup study, and the rhetorical audience does not agree with the unstated premises, “Abolish the Police” is a failed enthymeme. This is the counterfactual of Copeland’s conception of a successful enthymeme, which requires buy-in to the conclusion. Without buy-in to the premises, which structurally are precursors for investment in the conclusion, “Abolish the Police” was never likely to become a successful example of an enthymeme. BLM’s reliance on the audience accepting P2 before they could commit to C in communities around the United States doomed this particular policy proposal to fail.
While attacks from cultural conservatives hindered the effectiveness of BLM messaging, internal disagreement among cultural progressives might have played an equally important role. The debate around the slogan “Abolish the Police” exemplifies this problem. Not only did the slogan fail to gather significant support from Black or White communities for its goal, but it also resisted definition altogether. A New York Times opinion article was titled “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” with a subheading of “Because reform won’t happen.” It is clear that the writer, anti-criminalization organizer Mariame Kaba, said P2 out loud, for her readers to deliberate on. The American public, though, as representatively defined and surveyed by Gallup, does not agree with the subheading; they think reform can and should happen, which is why 96% of Americans continue to support policies like punishing officer abuses. She says police reforms have failed in the past, so her conclusion is to abolish the police now, as the slogan says.
While Kaba provides only one interpretation of “Abolish the Police,” the slogan-as-a-command has a unique characteristic among policy proposals: it resists unanimous interpretation. With policy changes, clarity is typically desired. It is the reason why bills have names that provide an overview of what activities are included. However, in his Vox article on the subject, Sean Illing notes, “the thinkers and activists involved with the movement…don’t all agree on the meaning of ‘Abolish the Police.’” Since this is considered a strength, not a weakness, the resistance to a solitary meaning makes sense. Having a diversity of opinions might also allow the best ones to rise to the top through social distillation, and in that case, the movement is strengthened. Working within this context, I don’t see how a slogan, a mechanism that utilizes reiteration in public discourse as a symbol of collective ideological unity, is helpful to the cause. If the phrase might represent multiple veins of thought, then there is no singular meaning that is known and agreed upon by all those who utter “Abolish the Police.”
The natural consequence of such circumstances is that two or more of these meanings might be contradictory; while Kaba intends abolition literally, Christy Lopez, a law professor at Georgetown University, defends “the language of abolition” as the key factor (Illing). The unstated premises, then, are not universally known, and notably, can even lie in indirect opposition to each other, as I have demonstrated. Even while the slogan is refreshingly direct, its significance in the sociopolitical arena was not defined unilaterally, which has been to its detriment. All things considered, it is no surprise that the public could not support this proposal; its proponents argue the same three words are open to multiple legitimate interpretations, which does not make it easy to talk about in public without running the risk of misunderstanding.
In sum, BLM’s overreliance on slogans, with all their rhetorical limitations, contributed to their inability to mobilize the population to action. While it is evident that the movement brought tens of millions of people to the streets in protest for racial equality, much of this happened when BLM had the advantage of anger and frustration after George Floyd’s murder. When the circumstances cooled and resistance began to ferment, the right was able to dispute the shared understandings that BLM supposed they had with all their supporters by attacking the enthymemes the organization utilized. From there, White opposition to the movement increased dramatically from its summer lows of 34% to 51% a year later, and there has been little change since, according to Civiqs, a polling site. BLM might not see this as a bad thing; it is fair to argue that their efforts have advanced radical ideas for Black empowerment into mainstream socio-political thought after years of neglect by White powerbrokers, or even that their new levels of White support represent the people who are genuinely allies, and thus benefits the movement in their overall orientation.
Nevertheless, if BLM wants to enact the change they desire to see, they might look to ensure that the premises they do not say match with the premises they do. Pandering to radicalism is more manageable when one has nothing at stake in the fight. However, with the wellbeing of Black Americans on the docket, the time is now to recognize that changes in rhetoric will lead to changes in reality.
“Black Lives Matter.” Civiqs, Civiqs, 11 Dec. 2021
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