David and Goliath Story as Rhetorical Device to Legitimize Violence by Powerful or Militant “Victims”

black_panthers_in_marvelIn “David, Goliath, and the Black Panthers: The Paradox of the Oppressed Militant in the Rhetoric of Self-Defense” (Journal of Communication Inquiry 37 no. 1 (2013): 5-25), Amanda Davis Gatchet and Dana L. Cloud argue that the reference to the David and Goliath story, when used as shorthand for the defeat of a powerful opponent by a weaker party,

is a rhetorical resource that serves two functions for both mainstream political and social movement discourse. First, it potentially legitimizes the use of violence in a social conflict by figuring political collectives as aggrieved victims. Second, it crafts a paradoxical collective persona: that of an oppressed militant (in the case of social movements) or a mighty victim (in the case of hegemonic powers), an agent who is at once both powerful and oppressed. (5)

The authors examine the rhetorical use of elements shared with the David and Goliath story by the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence (BPP) and also by the media in their portrayals of the BPP. They draw some conclusions for contemporary politics:

In contrast to rhetorics justifying hegemonic violence (e.g., in the War on Terror), social movement actors lay claim to the identity of the oppressed in terms of their particular counterhegemonic position in a socioeconomic order: that of the oppressed militant. The rhetoric of the U.S. War on Terror, on the other hand, framed the George W. Bush administration’s violence in terms of the mighty victim, despite the marked asymmetry of power relations between the United States and its targets. The difference may explain why (in an ideological not intentional sense) mass media and politicians more often than not framed the Panthers in discrediting ways. Explanations of sociopolitical phenomena in terms of system and structure are not commonsense or natural frames within which to interpret violence in liberal capitalist society, but critics should recognize their reasonable-ness…. Only the actors already in power maintain the prerogative of system blindness. (18-19)

As it is the tenth anniversary of Edward Said’s death, here is a part of his last major speech, which should resonate with the article by Gatchet and Cloud:

The US has, at the very least, asserted its strategic dominance over the center of the world’s largest known energy reserves from the Gulf to the Caspian Sea. And it plans to reshape the area by pacifying threats to its dominance in countries like Syria, Iran, and some of the Gulf emirates.

To threaten war with such belligerence and such a wasteful deployment of military resources is an abuse of human tolerance and human values….

… my point here is to assert the universal applicability of human rights to those unfortunate people — given that since World War II, there has grown up an impressive, even formidable, world-wide consensus that each individual or collectivity, no matter his or her color, ethnicity, religion, or culture, is to be protected from such horrific practices as starvation, torture, forced transfer of population, discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnos, humiliation, extra-judicial political assassinations, land expropriations and all manner of similar cruel and unusual punishment.

I want to affirm also that no power, no matter how special or how developed or how strong or how urgent its claims of past victimization, is exempt from accusation and judgment if that government practices such things.

See also:

The Use of the David and Goliath narrative in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict“, Remnant of Giants, 23 February 2013

Israelite David versus Palestinian Goliath? Imagined Community and Israeli Missile-Defence Systems“, Remnant of Giants, 14 November 2012

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