November 22, 2011

The Rhetoric of Pepper Spray

It’s called bad kairos.

The reaction of the UC Davis police to peaceful student protesters is now an internet meme featuring Lt. John Pike pepper-spaying everything from baby seals to the Declaration of Independence. These images are satire and deadly serious howls of outrage (an outrage I share).

Pepper-spraying the students at UC Davis was a speech act in that physical acts may be interpreted by witnesses as springing from particular ideologies and “speaking” for those ideologies. The act, then, becomes a text of that ideology and open to reaction, critique, and resistance.

These photoshopped shenanigans (just search for pepper spray cop on Google) have Pike spraying vulnerable and/or sacred things, i.e. the two images reproduced here. I interpret that to mean that the authors of these images believe Pike, and the power he represents, is a direct threat to our culture (and I happen to agree with them if this is the case) .

It’s difficult to know what political impact these images might have. Bursting into a meme so quickly is significant, I think. But then there’s the irreverent and, in some cases, outrageous subjects that could easily turn the meme against the authors.  Also bad kairos?

Wait and see.

4 Responses

  1. Tim 

    re: Pike, and the power he represents, is a direct threat to our culture

    I think there is an audience for that truth claim. I think “our culture” helps define the audience. The perceived cultural threat seems to be against “civil disobedience” as a speech act. However, the point of disobeying is confrontation and escalation. In effect, the pepper spraying was a first order perlocutionary effect sought by the actors of disobedience for the consumption of the audience and the sought after second order effect.

    I find it useful to compare the “Don’t tase me, bro! meme with what we know about events surrounding the pepper spray cop meme.

  2. acline 

    Tim… That’s something I’ve always wondered about so-called non-violent civil disobedience — it seems to make no sense to me unless the rhetorical intention is to force the opposition into an act of violence. And that seems to me to then require that any such situation descend into violence on all sides. That begs the question: Is all revolutionary change only possible through violence?

  3. Tim 

    Not all change is revolutionary and not all revolutionary change has been made through violence, so I would say it is possible.

  4. I agree, Tim, and the action of the non-violence on the part of the protesters and their violent treatment is certainly counter to this philosophy! It’s outrageous, really!