“The Language of the Unheard”: Rioting as a speech act

Matthew Chrisman, Graham Hubbs*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Philosophers, political theorists, and the general public are increasingly concerned with the moral complexities of riots, especially those that occur in overtly political circumstances within democratic societies. Many believe the riots can play no constructive role in a democracy, but recently some theorists have argued that riots can be morally justifiable forms of political protest. To adjudicate this important issue, we think a better account is needed of the ways in which riots can be politically communicative, and this paper aims to supply such an account. We start from the assumption that some riots are protests and then use speech-act theory to develop an account of the complex illocutionary logic of riotous protests. We argue that political riots, like all political protests, have a vocative element that is often overlooked. This element is what Martin Luther King Jr. pointed to when he described political riots as “the voice of the unheard” through which rioters demand recognition as equal participants in democratic decision making. An appreciation of the communicative structure of political riots, in particular their vocative dimension, provides a way of understanding the constructive role they can play deliberation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)379-401
Number of pages23
JournalPhilosophy and Public Affairs
Issue number4
Early online date5 Oct 2021
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


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