COMM 339 -- Persuasion

Dr. Lee McGaan  

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Rhetoric of Agitation and Control


“The Rhetoric of Agitation”[1]



“Agitation exists when:

1)  people outside the normal decision-making establishment

2)  advocate significant social change and

3)  encounter a degree of resistance within the establishment such as to require more than the normal discursive means of persuasion.”  (Bowers and Ochs, p. 4)


The rhetoric of agitation can be viewed as a continuum of behaviors which range from persuasive speaking (normal argumentation) to outright revolution (non-symbolic, instrumental action). According to Bowers and Ochs, agitation movements typically progress step by step through the continuum from the persuasive toward the confrontational.  Their model is based on and describes protest movements including the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and Vietnam War Protest Movements.





1.  Petition of the establishment.  This strategy includes normal discursive means of persuasion (speeches presenting “the case,” reasoned discussions, petitioning).



2.  Promulgation.  Once step 1 has met with suppression or avoidance step 2 is likely to occur.  It involves tactics used to win social support for the movement and expand the base (informational picketing, handbills, protest meetings, exploitation of the media, etc.).



3.  Solidification.  The strategy of solidification occurs primarily within the agitating group.  Its purpose is to unite the group and increase motivation.  Tactics include: songs, slogans, in-group publications, movement symbols.


4.  Polarization.  If the movement is still being resisted substantially after solidification, tactics which polarize (that is, force people to clearly choose sides - “us or them”) the relevant publics usually are adopted.  Tactics include: flag issues and individuals, derogatory jargon, non-violent resistance.


5.  Escalation/confrontation.  This strategy is used following step 4 in order to gain the support/sympathy of those still uncommitted and neutralize the opposition of those siding with the establishment.  Gaining over-reaction is a key goal.  Tactics include: contrast, threatened disruptions, offensiveness, non-negotiable demands.



6.  Gandhi and guerrilla.  This strategy involves confronting the establishment with both non-violent and violent forms of protest in order to confuse and gain sympathy for the movement.



7.  Revolution.  This strategy is not rhetorical.





Typical responses to agitation from the establishment include (in roughly this order):


  • avoidance   (counter-persuasion, evasion, secret rationale, denial of means);

  • suppression   ( leader harassment, denial of demands, banishment, murder);

  • adjustment   (name change, sacrificial lambs, accepting means, co-opting);

  • capitulation   (not a control response but surrender).

[1] adapted from J.W. Bowers and D.J. Ochs. THE RHETORIC OF AGITATION AND CONTROL (Addison-Wesley, l980).


Last updated 4/23/2010