Three Types of Social Change Speech

Reflecting on three distinct types of speech acts in the context of this complicated moment – 

I talk often about two types: (1) saying something because it needs to be said, which is a proclamation of truth as one sees it; and (2) saying something to be heard, which is an invitation to examine a truth (perhaps a truth new or uncomfortable for the listener) in a new way. 

For our purposes here, let’s call those proclamation and invitation. 

Invitation is usually gentler and more relationship-oriented than proclamation – and proclamation more bold and clear than invitation – though ultimately they point to the same truths IF the same truths are in mind at the start. 

Some people focus on one and some on the other. In a healthy view, both groups respect both efforts as a collaborative, multi-faceted strategy rather than as ‘doing it the wrong way.’ In social change work, we need both, provided that they are clear about the liberation-for-all foundation. 

They are two sides of the same valuable coin, two different methods of working toward the same goal. 

(NOTE: that does NOT mean that all people using either of these two tactics have the same goal – just that these are two distinct tactics that can be used in meaningful social change work toward a particular goal). 

In my own complex role, I use both approaches, depending on my assessment of the needs of the moment (note: and sometimes that shift catches people off guard and they get bold from me when they expected warmer-fuzzier or vice versa. I speak to a broad audience here and in many spaces, so I do the best I can given the exigencies of any given moment). 

As for that third type: (3)  there is also speaking because *we* need to be heard. Often it’s because we’re angry, frustrated, or exhausted, though it can be a happier thing too. The words in this case function as a vent. 

There is nothing wrong with this. (note: I do this too). In fact, it is critically important. We all need to express our feelings, especially if we are concerned about the plight of the Earth and its people. The work of caring (and acting on that caring) is intense. 

The KEY THING HERE is to understand that this third speech act, vent, is fundamentally about oneself and how one is feeling rather than about strategic engagement in social change work (which is the focus of proclamation and invitation). 

In other words, it’s a human/ego statement more than a tactical statement about an issue. 

An example, steeped in a bit hyperbole — “HEY STUPID! WEAR A DAMN MASK!!!” There are many other versions of this around this and every other issue. 

(SERIOUS NOTE – I’m not here to debate either the science or the ethics of mask wear or the approaches of those who advocate for or against it. I’ve made my position clear in recent weeks: nobody likes wearing a mask, but it is the right thing to do because the science is clear that it significantly reduces the risk that one will transmit COVID to another person. Another option for non-mask wearers (without underlying medical conditions) is just staying home so you don’t endanger others. That’s another legit way of caring for one’s neighbor and fulfilling one’s responsibility to others. You are welcome to express your own perspective, whether you agree or disagree – on your own page. But it’s beside my point here. I am simply using the phrase above as an example). 

This type of speech act suits an internal need – and if you’ve got an audience that hears you and affirms you and keeps you accountable, that is a sure blessing. 

I’d suggest, however,  that this type of engagement is unlikely to (a) persuade or encourage the reluctant, (b) inform and bolster the undecided or tentative, or (c) skillfully express solidarity and shared insight with one’s comrades in the struggle  – i.e., the primary and secondary audiences for proclamation and invitation – and for any form of social change work. 

It can be a space of shared support around the Vent topic – but that’s collective Vent rather than tactical engagement. 

It takes time, energy, intention, patience, and a certain dedication to wisdom to do proclamation and invitation well, at least on an enduring and consistent basis. None of us is perfect at it and hopefully we are all learning all along the way.

Vent, on the other hand, is driven by the energy of the self. Its criteria of success is how much release of tension and energy you gain by it. 

All three are important. All three engage the emotions and the context of the moment. They are just three different things. 

I’d argue we are wise to be mindful of  the distinctions among the three – and their relationship to our end goals – in this moment and as the work continues.