8th April 2021
Another evening of disturbances in Northern Ireland.
And so another round of ‘appeals for calm’.
Of course: such a call is the responsible thing to do – and nothing in this post should be taken to gainsay this.
But do such appeals actually work?
Does this – almost ritualistic – reflexive speech act ever have the intended effect?
And if so, how?
A cynic may contest that one function of ‘appealing for calm’ is to just give something ‘community leaders’ something to say and do – a gesture as empty and meaningless as ‘thoughts and prayers’.
As such there could almost be a circular definition – a ‘community leader’ is the person who ‘appeals for calm’, and ‘appealing for calm’, is what a ‘community leader’ does – thereby a ‘community leader appealing for calm’ is almost a tautology.
But such cynicism may be misplaced, for there appear to be many examples of appeals for calm that have had efficacy:
When Nelson Mandela appealed for calm after Chris Hani was killed. He could easily have used it to help overthrow the government violently and bring himself to power, instead he was statesman-like and not only gained power but a legendary status.— EdBenEgg (@EdBenEgg) April 7, 2021
Didier Drogba appealing for an end to hostilities and to hold elections helped end violence in Ivory Coast https://t.co/g5XBh3zo6o— Chris Melvin (@ChrisMelv) April 7, 2021
Bobby Kennedy’s speech after the assassination of Martin Luther King has been credited with keeping Indianapolis relatively calm. https://t.co/gd0yjWUHpb— Sam (@LLFO99) April 7, 2021
And from my home city of Birmingham:
The father of Haroon Jahan who was killed by a car during riots in Birmingham 2011 called for calm, and that did have an impact.— Jon Ẉalmsley (@ArghZombies) April 7, 2021
I certainly still remember his speech, considering he was there treating the United when his own son was dying.https://t.co/r7ZneIs2hE
So there are historical instances where the ‘appeal for calm’ seems to have had the intended political and social effect – though of course there may be other features present.
But the ‘appeal for calm’ has another important function.
And this is that it will be significant when the expected speech act is not made by a particular individual.
Here we have an example from just three months ago:
Isn't the counterfactual important? Look at what happened when Trump refused to condemn Capitol riots etc— Simon Evans (@DrSimEvans) April 7, 2021
Silence as a signal.
As so often with language and politics, it can be more important when certain words and phrases are not used than when they are.
This is true not only for formal texts such as laws, but also for rhetorical acts in certain situations.
An ‘appeal for calm’ thereby might or might not work – but a failure or obvious refusal to ‘appeal for calm’ can have unwelcome consequences.
Appealing for calm is therefore an important piece of political behaviour – both for what it can achieve and also for what may happen if the appeal is not made.
Words matter, but so does silence.
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