Political Speech and Contextualization


(Falun Gong Activists on the National Mall)

I had the occasion of spending Sunday afternoon at an event on the National Mall held by NASA regarding climate change, during which a comment was made on ‘how meaningless the actual science of warming is’ compared to the less ambiguous policy issue of “spending the blood of our young people” on oil. What struck me about the remark was not necessarily the phrase chosen or the political ardor of the statement. Instead, what was interesting was the question of how the words and the message were potentially tailored to location and audience.

Certainly the catalyst of the observation was the potential of events on National Mall to spread by osmosis to the Capitol. However, what if the event had taken place in the less amenable locale of Grafton, North Dakota — would differences in the sociopolitical culture, policy involvement (lack thereof), opportunities or professional interests of the audience have changed the scope and language of advocacy?

The logical extension of this question of contextualization: exploiting the only opportunity for political communication; capitalizing on the brief moments when foreign nationals wander outside of the control their illiberal state.


(Shock and awe is its own language)

Later that evening. Vivid images of tortured youth with accompanying descriptions in Chinese — not in front of the Chinese Embassy, but further down the National Mall, in front of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It’s clear, based on the choice of medium and language, who was the objective demographic of the Falun Gong activists. Well over half a million Chinese tourists visit the United States every year, it’s reasonable to imagine that a large portion take in the nation’s capital (and capitol) and that the affluence that allows them to travel has a political dimension as well.

The subtle sophistication of the protesters is their continual use of context-sensitive media and messages. In this case, staging dissent in front of one of the biggest attractions for Chinese tourists. Agents carry two sets of pamphlets: one for Chinese-language passersby’s and one for non. Alternatively, Falun Gong adherents often stand at E and 23rd in DC, between the Foggy Bottom Metro and the heart of American foreign policy, handing out literature of Chinese Communist human rights violations. In the suburbs the movement will turn up at shopping centers to specifically promote the facilely non-political, family-friendly events such as their frequent performances at the Kennedy Center (see the Chinese Chicago consulate statement on the “propagandizing cultic doctrines of Falun Gong”); in the business areas of the district, they position themselves in front of the Metro to hand out copies of the Epoch Times in the same fashion that the Washington Express is distributed.

Note the propensity to present itself as a non-political entity in the latter cases (as journalistic media or as a cultural organization), propagandizing surreptitiously through selecting particular news stories or presenting a nostalgic view of pre-revolutionary China.

Why does this matter more than its value of clever strategy? Not tailoring one’s message to specific environments is a significant failure to embrace opportunity. People are, in varying shades, resistant to new ideas and look for barriers to changing their attitudes. While simplifying one’s message may viscerally feel like sacrificing integrity, it is the only way to connect to neutral parties. Although this seems obvious, umbrella political groups with broadly defined interests routinely fail.

Contrast the strategies of the Falun Gong dissidents with other movements and we see that, while topicality is well-understood, what is rarely seen is the level of context-awareness of the spiritual sect. LaRouche followers, for example, will show up in Washington state with the exact same signs and message as Washington metonym (when they do diversify, it seems meretricious). Ambiguity is the bedfellow of this stagnation, movements such as Students for a Democratic Society or the Tea Parties find themselves defined by their most offensive denominator to critics and poorly understood by the public. This occurs because the dictates of inclusivity deny effective control over leadership and message; a rally becomes the articulation of multiple issues by members who only subscribe for their self-interests. Often even this message is so vague that its relationship to the situation is spurious at best.

(One needs to examine the internal ideological coherence of the Tea Parties to consider their long-term potential. It’s easy to turn out in large numbers and be angry, the left has been doing it for decades. It’s constructing a common set of principles and acting on this platform that is difficult.)

An example from experience: even though protesting ‘Western imperialism’ at a political convention in Minneapolis may legitimately entail addressing arcane topics like American support for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, the objection creates a burden of having to educate the public on a situation which few locals have likely to have any emotional attachment to.

Reducing the burden of entry by simplification and clear articulation should be the foremost concern to any movement. Often protesters become so proud from being the beholders of some ultimate truth that they become condescending and expect the public to clamor for their ideas. An unresponsive audience becomes justification for not trying to be as accessible as possible, closing off the movement off from the outside.

Falun Gong Activist Approaching (Chinese?) Tourists

(Chinese tourists distance from Falun Gong quickly)

Back to the case at hand. Against all the banter of the Internet as a corrosive force against information-authoritarian regimes such as China, it’s probable that Falun Gong’s methods are bound to reach a wider audience than subversive activities on Facebook or Twitter (or QQ and Baidu). This is not to imply that such nationals immediately embrace liberalism when they leave home — inculcation creates stubborn habits. However, Falun Gong’s contextualization is an absolutely necessary component in what is effectively their only contact with members of the Chinese public.

(Anything from here is bound to segue into a much less abstract curiosity: the ability of the state to socialize its nationals to the extent that norms survive hostile entities and alien environments. A topic rife with anecdotes to be touched on some other time.)

All of this begs an experiment for observing protests: how much of the message and media has been adapted to the particular opportunity and how much is the ceremony of the group or even the baggage of the personalities involved?