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The Disruptive and Visionary Peacebuilding Discourse of U.S. Representative Barbara Lee

The Disruptive and Visionary Peacebuilding Discourse of U.S. Representative Barbara Lee

Photo credit: Congresswoman Barbara Lee via Wikipedia Commons

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Gorsevski, E. W. (2021). Barbara Lee’s peacebuilding discourse as transformative social justice politics. Journal of Black Studies, 52(2), 144-165.

Talking Points

  • Peacebuilding discourse “driv[es] [U.S. Representative Barbara] Lee’s proven, successful Congressional record of bipartisan political problem-solving” in support of “equity, inclusiveness and nonviolence.”
  • Lee’s peacebuilding discourse “propel[s] her to dissent along with grassroots constituents to interrupt historical discourses of oppressive power,” while also offering a positive political project grounded in her own lived experience as a working-class, Black woman and single mother who understands first-hand the needs of her constituents and is able to “elevat[e] [that experience] to national legislative politics.”
  • The dual dimensions of Rep. Lee’s peacebuilding discourse—critique but also envisioning a just and peaceful society grounded in the needs of underrepresented communities—shape her unique contributions as a congressperson.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • It is through discourse that we make sense of—and then decide how to act in—the world, meaning that a particular (militarist) discourse is a precondition for the mobilization of individuals—and, by extension, military hardware—in the service of war. Rep. Barbara Lee’s leadership reminds us of the importance of articulating oppositional, peacebuilding discourses that call militarism to account, while offering alternatives that center human needs and nonviolence.

Summary

Days after the 9/11 attacks, 420 U.S. representatives voted for military action in Afghanistan, and one voted against: Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA). Explaining her vote, she presciently noted the possible escalatory effects of such action, as well as her concern that the U.S. “not become the evil that we deplore.” Throughout her career as a congresswoman, Lee has been a consistently courageous voice against militarism and for peace and justice. In this study, Ellen Gorsevski assesses Lee’s use of “peacebuilding discourse” (PD) in her legislative work, arguing that PD “driv[es] Lee’s proven, successful Congressional record of bipartisan political problem-solving” in support of “equity, inclusiveness and nonviolence.”

The author’s choice to focus on Lee’s PD reflects a desire to counter the traditional Eurocentrism of discourse studies but also an embrace of critical discourse analysis, which not only critically examines oppressive discourses but also highlights oppositional, activist discourses that serve to lift up marginalized communities. Drawing on Lee’s “interviews, speeches between 2001 to 2020, and…memoirs,” the author employs peacebuilding discourse analysis (PDA) to analyze Lee’s discourse across time. She argues that Lee’s PD is grounded in a “womanist”perspective, growing out of her lived experience as a Black woman and working-class single mother. Lee “calls out privileged, WM [white male] discourses that undermine and disenfranchise historically underrepresented individuals”—engaging in her own discourse analysis, in a sense—while centering the needs of these very communities, which “she understands experientially rather than abstractly.”

Discourse: “encompasses a wide array of visually, verbally, embodied, recorded, and replayed symbolic modes of intentional and suasory communication.” Can include everything from “slogans, gestures, or symbols…to full speeches.”

Peacebuilding discourse (PD): “the rhetorical invention and use of nonviolent communication, including peacebuilding symbols and activism; further, analysis (PDA) critiques oppressive power and violence, and creates preconditions for sociocultural, economic, and environmental justice.”

Peacebuilding discourse analysis (PDA): “a fusion of critical discourse analysis (CDA) methods within an explicitly peacebuilding theoretical framework… PDA is an intuitive, common-sense practice of political inquiry that entails questioning textual artifacts in light of intersectional experiential knowledge and an equity/justice-orientation.”

Womanist: A term coined by Alice Walker and described by Layli Phillips as “a social change perspective rooted in Black women’s and other women of color’s everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem solving in everyday spaces, extended to the problem of ending all forms of oppression for all people, restoring the balance between people and the environment/nature, and reconciling human life with the spiritual dimension.”

Phillips, L., ed. (2006). The womanist reader. New York: Routledge.

A lifelong activist involved in anti-war, anti-poverty, social/racial justice, and environmental movements who was also a single mother, a social worker, and a state representative, Lee was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, where she has served ever since. Her legislative work reflects a long-standing commitment to peacebuilding, including work on HIV/AIDS, education, and violence prevention; a U.S. Department of Peacebuilding; votes against and efforts to repeal the 2001/2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs); and support for marginalized and/or targeted groups.

Two aspects of Lee’s leadership stand out in the author’s analysis. First, Lee has demonstrated a rare ability to maintain her grassroots activist identity and legitimacy while also engaging in inside-the-system legislative politics. Second, she has proved herself to be an extremely courageous, visionary, and transformative leader, not afraid to stand out and very much go against the grain when her conscience so dictates—even maintaining her firm anti-war stance despite death threats. And her consistent re-election despite such unorthodox stances challenges assumptions about what constitutes politically prudent action, demonstrating to other politicians what is possible while also enabling her to stand up for other congresswomen of color. The author argues that Lee’s use of PD helps explain how both feats are possible. According to the author, Lee’s PD “propel[s] her to dissent along with grassroots constituents to interrupt historical discourses of oppressive power.” At the same time, the orientation of her PD around an “AA [African-American] feminist standpoint” enables her “to maintain an outsider, working class person’s perspective on social needs and justice while serving in the ultimate of insider clubs in politics” and “making incremental inroads” through sustained caucus and committee work with congressional colleagues.

Lee’s PD interrupts dominant, oppressive discourses through, especially, her critique of knee-jerk militarist responses to security threats and of the “routine government/lobbyist revolving door of kickbacks for elites.” In noting the escalatory risks of military action and centering the needs of marginalized communities, her PD stands in sharp contrast “to masculine, soldier-hero patriotism pervading American politics” and to congressional colleagues’ indebtedness to lobbyists like the NRA. Beyond interruption and critique, the positive political project her PD offers is grounded in her own lived experience as a working-class, Black woman and single mother who understands first-hand the needs of her constituents and is able to “elevat[e] [that experience] to national legislative politics.” By the same token, her “discursive strategy to advance peace and justice” is, in her own words, to “break things down to where people can understand foreign policy, international affairs, and global peace and security issues on a very local level,” as when she connects gun violence prevention in U.S. communities to war prevention globally in her advocacy for the creation of a U.S. Department of Peacebuilding.  

These dual dimensions of Lee’s peacebuilding discourse—critique but also envisioning a just and peaceful society grounded in the needs of underrepresented communities—shape her unique contributions as a congressperson. Reflecting both dimensions, Lee has critiqued the continued investment by the billions in militarist activities and institutions, calling instead for “that kind of investment in peace and nonviolence here at home.” Animated by this vision of “peace as a substantive political alternative to…violent conflict and war,” Lee’s PD has enabled the distinct clarity of purpose and rootedness in everyday concerns that are hallmarks of her transformational political leadership.

Informing Practice  

Although discourse may seem amorphous and insignificant compared to, say, tanks and guns, it is actually through discourse that we make sense of—and then decide how to act in—the world. How we represent particular events or people in newspaper articles, popular culture, or political speeches, for instance, shapes how we understand problems—and therefore what “solutions” we see as appropriate or necessary. Consider the courses of action that seem appropriate or necessary when we identify someone as a “terrorist” rather than as a “freedom fighter”; as an “illegal alien” rather than as a “mother in search of a better life for her kids”; as a “rioter” rather than as a “protester.” Consider the implications of George W. Bush’s representation of the 9/11 attacks as an “act of war” rather than as a “crime”—the former in fact mobilized those very tanks and guns, while the latter would have mobilized international law enforcement agencies and—a few years later—potentially the now-existent International Criminal Court. In other words, before the military hardware of war becomes usable, there must be a discourse widespread and dominant enough to animate individuals to operate that hardware in the service of war—one that casts those weapons as the appropriate (as well as effective and legitimate) solution.

The problem is, we hardly notice the presence of militarist discourse, let alone how it operates and makes war possible, if there’s no other discourse challenging it and throwing it into relief. We are the fish in water who don’t even know we’re wet. That is where Rep. Barbara Lee comes in. The significance of oppositional discourses like hers is that they remind us that there are alternative ways of thinking and other possibilities for acting. They force those who may be strategically or unthinkingly adopting a dominant discourse to account for the ways they are representing the situation or the “other side.” And even tentative and limited articulations of an oppositional discourse open up space—even if only cracks at first—for others to think differently and more critically about a situation. It is incredibly difficult to be that first—and, maybe for a while, only—person though. But, especially if that lone individual with the rare combination of conscience, intelligence, and courage keeps getting re-elected, her record can demonstrate to others that taking risks for principled reasons is not politically treacherous. More people can be prodded to examine the counterproductive effects of military action. Stories about the human lives on the other ends of U.S. bombs can reach the public. Veterans, having experienced the horrors of war first-hand, can provide powerful voices questioning the purpose, effectiveness, and ethics of military action. And, over time, with space opened up for more individuals to question the received wisdom of militarism, the discursive terrain within even Congress can shift—and with it congressional policy-making. Indeed, more and more lawmakers have begun to seek the repeal of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, and others have had to acknowledge the wrongheadedness of their votes for these AUMFs in the first place, as illustrated during the 2020 U.S. presidential debates. When the next moment of national reckoning over a perceived security threat comes, when the usual suspects begin their seemingly inevitable march toward war, these regrets and this hindsight can be called upon in deliberations about new military action: Will military action actually bring about the expected objective? How many civilians will be killed? And who are the “militants” being targeted anyway? Do they even want to be there? Or are there other, more effective forms of influence we have available? What will the long-term and unintended consequences of military action be?

Although it can sometimes seem like discursive shifts, not to mention policy change, at this level can be incredibly slow going, the work of activists and advocates continues in the meantime, animated by these same oppositional discourses that may not yet have taken hold within the halls of power—whether providing sanctuary to migrant communities, mentoring individuals at risk of gun violence, or accompanying those threatened by military attack. Lee’s visionary leadership in Congress reminds us that both are necessary—the disruptive and direct action of activists and the incremental, broader policy change in Congress—and that both require the interruption of dominant, militarist discourses and the articulation instead of discourses that center human needs and nonviolent approaches to seeking security and justice. [MW]

Discussion Questions

  • What are some dominant discourses currently limiting our understanding of what is possible in key areas of domestic and foreign policy and contributing to various forms of violence and oppression? How might we best frame and amplify peacebuilding discourses to counter these and maximize support for policies that center human needs and nonviolent approaches to conflict?
  • What accounts for Rep. Barbara Lee’s longevity in Congress, despite espousing stances that are widely seen as politically risky?

Continued Reading

AFSC. (2017, July 3). How to change a narrative: A guide for activists and peace builders. Retrieved on May 13, 2021, from https://www.afsc.org/story/how-to-change-narrative-guide-activists-and-peace-builders

Lee, B. (N.d.). Biography. Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Retrieved on May 13, 2021, from https://lee.house.gov/about/biography?1

Brandon-Smith, H. (2021, April 7). The 2002 Iraq AUMF: What it is and why Congress should repeal it. Friends Committee on National Legislation. Retrieved on May 13, 2021, from https://www.fcnl.org/updates/2021-04/2002-iraq-aumf-what-it-and-why-congress-should-repeal-it

Brandon-Smith, H. (2020, September 17). 19 years ago, the 2001 AUMF became law. May this anniversary be its last. Friends Committee on National Legislation. Retrieved on May 13, 2021, from https://www.fcnl.org/updates/2020-09/19-years-ago-2001-aumf-became-law-may-anniversary-be-its-last

Key Words: U.S. Representative Barbara Lee; discourse; peacebuilding; militarism; Afghanistan; Iraq; Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF)

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