CCR 631: Contemporary Rhetorics

Role of the Leader in Social Movements

Some figures emerge from social movements as leaders of the people, whether they choose or accept these labels or not: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu. Some movements are leader-less, their power decentralized and dispersed: the animal liberation movement, radical environmentalism, Occupy. Though I have read his essay before, I was intrigued by this tension between a leader-driven social movement (Simons) read next to a leader-less movement (Kohrs Campbell).

In “Requirements, Problems, and Strategies: A Theory of Persuasion for Social Movements,” Herbert W. Simons attempts to theorize and analyze the role of persuasion in social movements through the lens of how they are led. In order to theorize these social movements—defined as “an uninstiutionalized collectivity that mobilizes for action to implement a program for the reconstitution of social norms or values” (386)—he establishes a framework:

These imperatives constitute rhetorical requirements for the leadership of a movement. Conflicts among requirements create rhetorical problems, which in turn affect decisions on rhetorical strategy. The primary rhetorical test of the leader—and, indirectly, of the strategies he employs—is his capacity to fulfill the requirements of his movement by resolving or reducing rhetorical problems. (386)

The role of the leader, then, is to balance the internal demands of the movement’s people with the external demands of the larger structure in order to ameliorate (somehow) the rhetorical problems of the conflict. This is a conflicted place to be both ethically and practically.

A leader faces rhetorical dilemmas that range from identifying with the movement’s people to distorting or concealing information from them in order to maintain support to balancing the people’s needs without relinquishing power (388-390). How a leader develops strategies to address these dilemmas depends on the leader, who falls on a continuum: moderate, intermediate, militant.

A moderate leader (and strategist) embodies reason, civility, and decorum (390). If the moderate leader—in a Burkean sense—attempts to create identification between the movement and larger power structure, the militant leader relies on division (390). Interestingly, both leaders attempt to use intermediate strategies “to obtain the following advantages of each while still avoiding their respective disadvantages” (391). An example of this is energy. Simons describes militant supporters as energized and moderate supporters as controlled. If militant supporters become too aggravated and start taking power into their own hands, the militant leader must balance the needs and desires of the people and employ a more intermediate strategy to re-gain control.

The final key element here is the difference between power-vulnerables and power-invulnerables. Simons defines “power-invulnerables” as “those who have little or nothing to lose by publicly voicing their prejudices and acting on their self-concerns” (392). Typically, I think of these people as allies or even (less positively) as people who get caught in the cross-fire in some way—people who may not have direct interests or stake in the movement.

Women in the women’s liberation movement had a lot to lose. In “The Rhetoric of Women’s Liberation: An Oxymoron,” Karlyn Kohrs Campbell takes a different approach than Simons—one that I see much more in line with the Disability Rights Movement (DRM).

Campbell argues that “the rhetoric of women’s liberation is a distinctive genre because it evinces unique rhetorical qualities that are a fusion of substantive and stylistic features” (397). So Campbell seeks to carve out a different kind of rhetoric for the women’s liberation movement. Indeed, Campbell claims that “insofar as the role of rhetor entails qualities of self-reliance, self-confidence, and independence, its very assumption is a violation of the female role” (398). The same can be said for the rhetoric of the DRM because if we assume the rhetor to be an engaged citizen—a rhetorical agent—this, too, is at odds with the image of the disabled citizen who has been denied access to the civic realm and who (most frequently with mental and intellectual disability) has been stripped of rhetorical agency.

There are even similarities in the struggles for economic (the disabled represent the largest unemployment group), social (members of the DRM attempt to redefine social assumptions), and sexual (forced abortions and compulsory sterilization still occur) equality.

Though Kohrs Campbell argues that women’s liberation rhetoric easily meets classical rhetorical standards, she argues that such reformist demands are “substantively unique, inevitably radical, because they attack the fundamental values underlying this culture. The option to be moderate and reformist is simply not available to women’s liberation advocates” (399). This is an interesting connection to Simons and “power-vulnerables.” Because women have such deeply bodied and radical investment in these issues, they can’t occupy moderate space. I would argue the same is true for those participating in the DRM—the issue is so deeply bodied, in fact, that is a life or death issue. When the disabled don’t have access (to economic equality, health care, rights that positions them as human beings, relationships and families and a sexual culture), they risk prejudice, the inability to afford necessary medications and services, and hate crimes.

Moving backward for a moment, it’s also important to flesh out what Kohrs Campbell means when she claims that women’s rhetoric is substantively and stylistically different. I’ve already addressed the substantive issues (violating sex-appropriate norms), and she defines stylistic features as “characteristic modes of rhetorical interaction, typical ways of structuring the relationships among participants in a rhetorical transaction, and emphasis on particular forms of argument, proof, and evidence” (400). This is where I began this post: the notion of rhetorical interactions and leader-less social movements.

Kohrs Campbell focuses on “consciousness raising,” which “involves meetings of small, leaderless groups in which each person is encouraged to express her personal feelings and experience” (400).

There is no leader, rhetor, or expert.

And the goal is to make the personal political, “to create awareness (through shared experiences) that what were thought to be personal deficiencies and individual problems are common and shared, a result of their position as women” (400). Here the differences of women’s rhetoric become clearer: rejecting a singular expert leader, valuing narrative and personal experience, risking self-exposure, emphasizing dialogue.

And so, she concludes, the rhetoric of women’s liberation is ultimately an oxymoron:

It is a genre without a rhetor, a rhetoric in search of an audience, that transforms traditional argumentation into confrontation, that “persuades” by “violating the reality structure” but that presumes a consubstantiality so radical that it permits the most intimate of identifications. It is a “movement” that eschews leadership, organizational cohesion, and the transactions typical of mass persuasion. Finally, of course, women’s liberation is baffling because there is no clear answer to the recurring question, “What do women want?” On one level, the answer is simple; they want what every person wants—dignity, respect, the right to self-determination, to develop their potentials as individuals. But on another level, there is no answer—not even in feminist rhetoric. (408)

Disability Rights Movement protest still, people lined up. One person waves an American flag with the "handicapped" logo in place of stars (Lives Worth Living,
Still shot of Disability Rights Movement protest (Lives Worth Living,

And here I conclude with the DRM. In many ways, the goals of the group are immensely personal/political. There is a desire for equality, for basic human rights. But as Kohrs Campbell mentions, there is an interesting tension here because there is no single answer to the question, “what do the disabled want?” All members don’t have the same experiences and intentions, so they can’t have the same political goals. And because disability includes such a wide range of lived experiences and material realities, there’s a danger in overgeneralizing when characterizing the needs and goals of the disabled.

There is also a risk in having a leader of the DRM because, again, the disabled community is so vastly different. Tanya Titchkosky has noted this when she critiques the handicapped logo as the universal symbol of disability—because it only speaks to a limited portion of the community.

What interests me, then, particularly in terms of a leader-less disability rights movement, is this: How do leader-less groups, such as the disabled community, productively organize (and seek to deconstruct) particular identity categories if they don’t identify with those categories? 



Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. “The Rhetoric of Women’s Liberation: An Oxymoron.” 397-410.

Simons, Herbert W. “Requirements, Problems, and Strategies: A Theory of Persuasion for Social Movements.”  385-396.


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