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  • Writer's pictureMichael Johnstone


Guerrilla Girls, Benvenuti alla biennale femminista! (from the series "Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: Portfolio 2"), 2005; Lithographic poster, 17 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; © Guerrilla Girls, Courtesy

Subversion and truth-telling

Leadership requires a willingness to challenge the status quo and to use a wide variety of tactics and strategies to do so. Among those who lead adaptive change are the truth tellers, men and woman who put their heads above the parapet and question prevailing attitudes and practices. We have seen how people such as the late Sinaed O'Connor spoke truth to power in her remarkable speech in 1992 on Saturday Night Live when she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II to protest child abuse in the Catholic Church.

Subversion comes in many forms as we discuss in our book.

For example, the Guerilla Girls are a feminist collective that created a billboard in 1989 portraying a naked woman wearing a guerilla mask. The text reads, “Do girls have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 5% of artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” The facts speak for themselves, challenging us to deny that women are still subject to social and political oppression, by appropriating the visual language of advertising. Their billboards use facts to subvert what they see as oppressive practices.

Political activists use rhetoric, writing, art, satire, or mass protest to provoke by subverting dominant narratives, and in the tradition of philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault, they show how the values and institutions of the powerful restrain change.

Subversive tactics are part of the long tradition that Michel Foucault called Parrhesia, based on the Greek practice of truth-telling. In his 1984 lectures, Foucault describes Parrhesia as a radical method of provocation because “it involves some form of courage, the minimal form of which consists in the ‘parrhesiast’ taking the risk of breaking and ending the relationship to other people which was precisely that which made his discourse possible.” The truth-telling of provocateurs like The Guerrilla Girls and Hannah Gadsby is risky to both teller and listener because courage is required to hold steady and consider the provocation even though it may threaten some part of who we think we are.

In the same tradition the 2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, provoked the public by telling the truth about sexual abuse. She opened the lid on government inaction when she informed the National Press Club in Canberra, “It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience.” Her comments alluded to the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s lukewarm response to allegations that a young woman had been raped in Parliament House, offering his role as a father to indicate he understood the gravity of the situation. “On top of that,” Tame added, “having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience.”

Provocateurs like Tame remind us of critical facts and continue to constructively subvert beliefs that restrain progress and are seen as oppressive. Activists usually speak for others, attempting to represent ideas that are unpalatable and uncomfortable to the mainstream. They point to what a future could and should look like. We have seen protest movements gather global momentum in recent years, from Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the #FeesMustFail protests in South Africa.

History shows us that carefully orchestrated protest over time has effectively contributed to changing both law and culture. By their nature, the frequency and persistence of protests erode elements of the established order and increase public awareness of the need for change. Those who provoke through protest are in effect saying to the powerful that they insist on having an equal voice in determining how society is structured and who it benefits. The provocation of a protest is based on the idea that resolution requires a reordering of society, and a change in how certain, often marginal, groups are seen.

Effective protest always uses the critical skills of provocation. There is always a need to assess the readiness of the broader population to consider the issues at hand and to regulate the disequilibrium, pulling back when there is a risk of explosion and delegitimization of the protesters. When that happens, there also needs to be a willingness to find other ways to put pressure on the system.

Extract from our new book Provocation as Leadership, pp97-99.


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