Guest Column: Reaction to the Assault on the U.S. Capitol

About Wednesday. I have struggled with what to say about those events. I suspect many of you share some of my emotions—angry, sad, traumatized, scared. I feel those things 36 or so hours after the fact as I draft these comments. I suspect these emotions will linger because Wednesday’s efforts by insurrectionists are part of a larger, longer pattern.

The folks storming the Capitol were mad because they lost. As these (what appeared to me) white men and women charged the Capitol, I thought of all of the men and women who advocated, spoke up, refused to give up their place on the bus or their place on the earth, who marched, went to prison, were beaten, and shot, and killed as they tried to gain some basic human rights: to have agency of their own bodies, to have a right to education, a right vote, a right to marry whom they want, a right to a living wage and safety at work, a right to worship and believe in their own ways.

As I pondered President-Elect Joe Biden’s response to the assault on the Capitol, I found myself resisting his assertion that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.” In fact, as Professor Kari Anderson pointed out to me as we were emailing Wednesday, and Roxane Gay of the NYT argued, the scenes at the Capitol do reflect a true America.

Carol Anderson eloquently notes in White Rage, every time the nation attempts to address its legacy of slavery (or the other oppressions of whiteness), whiteness is enraged and lashes out. Think of Jim Crow and lynching in the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction; the rise of the prison industrial complex and the sudden, life-damaging disinvestment in cities following the civil rights movements of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; the recent unspooling of voting rights by the Supreme Court and individual states. What we saw on Wednesday was predictable, expected, and the natural outcome of hundreds of years of privilege, and the resentments that build up when even the slightest shift in those privileges arise.

Maggie Koerth, writing in FiveThirtyEight, overviews the research of Roudabeh Kishi of the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Even Data Project. “Between May 1 and November 28, 2020,” Koerth writes, “authorities were more than twice as likely to attempt to break up and disperse a left-wing protest than a right-wing one.” As Koerth notes, there is little evidence that BLM protests were particularly violent. You can get to a report of the study itself here. Rather than the anger of losers, those protests registered legitimate and long-standing oppression: police violence against people of color, ongoing urban disinvestment, the colonization of native peoples lands, women’s struggle for the right to speak and the right to vote, LGBTQ efforts to live their love in public as well as private.

As several of us [communications scholars] discussed Wednesday evening, our communication scholarship predicted each step of the growing tyranny of Trumpian Republicans. Casey Boyle’s book Apocalypse Man: The Death Drive and the Rhetoric of White Masculine Victimhood gets us a long way to understanding the events of this week. Ersula Ore’s Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity teaches us what we need to know about how lynching remains a powerful racist disciplinary force. Kari Anderson’s work explains the power of gender to police boundaries in politics and demonstrates the violence with which publics respond to crossing those boundaries.

The point, of course, is that the work we do here every day responds directly to these threats to our democracy. Often the liberal arts and communication studies bolsters hegemonic power. But just like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution offers an unrealized aspiration of freedom for all, so to the liberal arts—that is the arts of the free—is aspirational.

We can more fully fulfill those aspirations here. We can keep building a community where our differences make us stronger rather than separate us. We can teach ourselves and our students of the power of rhetoric and communication not only to set off actions like those on Wednesday but to produce and perform the generations-long struggles for freedom. It is no mistake that those in power want to limit education to those, in Isabel Wilkerson language, in the lower castes. Education and the communication abilities that come with that education is a world-transforming resource.

I say this again and again: what we do matters. What we study directly impacts our hopes for democracy. What we teach enables ourselves and others to create the world we want to live in.

I hope over the coming days you can share your hurt and pain with folks close to you. I hope you can also find places of hope and joy. And I hope we, together, can see, acknowledge, and hold to account our imperfect democracy.

About the Author

Greg Dickinson

Dr. Greg Dickinson is the Chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Colorado State University, where he oversees curriculum development, faculty hiring and support, and student advising for all undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate programs. His scholarship concerns the intersections of rhetoric, place, memory, and everyday life. Dr. Dickinson investigates local, built spaces as a mode to understand the ways specific places engage individuals and to build theory about the materiality and spatiality of rhetoric. He has authored or edited four books, with the most recent being The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage with Brian L. Ott.