One of the last books I read as a university student was Outlaw Culture by bell hooks. I don’t remember if this was explicitly stated or just something I noticed while reading it, but bell hooks often leaves out the common article “the” when referring to movements. Rather than “the feminist movement,” she’ll talk about “feminist movement” and “the gay rights movment” becomes just “gay rights movement.” Such a subtle change has a surprisingly large effect on the meaning of such phrases.

I was reminded of this at the unitarian church this morning during a service around the topic of Martin Luther King, whose national holiday will be observed tomorrow. One woman spoke of attending the march on Washington during which King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. “The was the beginning of the civil rights movment,” she said. Of course it wasn’t. The minister went on to talk at length about Vernon Johns and Bayard Rustin, who both did extensive work for civil rights before King ever arrived in Alabama.

Clearly King’s speech wasn’t the beginning of the civil rights movement for these two men, nor for Rosa Parks, who sparked the bus boycott that first made King famous. It was, however, the beginning for the woman who called it “the beginning.” Or more precisely, it was the beginning of her civil rights movement — the moment at which her ideas about civil rights began to move.

And that’s all movements are really. Before reading bell hooks, I had imagined movements as groups of people physically moving. But while marching is powerful iconography for movements, it is not really the point. The important thing to move is not people’s bodies, but their ideas. And it’s clear this doesn’t happen in some collective reconsideration deserving a title like “the movement.” It’s a more liquid process that can’t really be quantified. Just as a collection of “water” is still “water,” the collection of each individual’s movement on any given issue is just “movement.”

Where this becomes important is not so much in determing the beginning of movements, but in determining the end. “The civil rights movement” is clearly over, as most of the people involved are either dead or retired. But “civil rights movement” goes on, as people’s ideas about civil rights continue to move.

This movement is a rather abstract concept, not something we can easily quantify (though perhaps votes for Obama for president will come close), but one way to keep people thinking about movement as an ongoing process is to leave off “the.” It’s a rare opportunity to improve public consciousness by doing less. So next time you find yourself talking about a movement, try saying one fewer word. It may just move the way someone thinks.

Excellent post, Scott. I haven't read any bell hooks since college. Maybe this is my call to read a little more.

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