Languages of the Unheard

Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy  (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2013; London & NYC: Zed Books, 2014)


“What we must see,” Martin Luther King once insisted, “is that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Recourse to rioting, he suggested, is seldom a marker of irrationality or mob psychology. More often, it is an attempt by marginalized people to find their voice, to gain a hearing, to assert their refusal to be silenced or ignored. King’s remark was as controversial as it was illuminating, yet he stopped short of depicting riots as defensible. He only insisted that they were understandable—a frustrated response to persistent injustice that made some sense in the face of long experience with intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power. But his wording hints at the possibility of a stronger view: that these outbursts of rebellion might sometimes be defensible, even admirable, because they make it impossible to ignore the grievances of the exploited and the oppressed.

What if we, today, were to adopt this interpretation of riots? How might this idea transform our understanding and evaluation of these spontaneous revolts? And could this understanding be extended to other forms of confrontational protest and rebellion: to general strikes, sit-ins, road blockades and occupations, to the monkeywrenching saboteur, the black bloc street fighter, or even the armed insurgent? Could these forms of militancy be regarded, in the same way, as languages of the unheard?

In its opening chapters, Languages of the Unheard offers a broad account of militancy as an aid to democracy and a principled response to the intransigence of elites and the unresponsiveness of institutions to the public interest. It proposes an understanding of militancy as a civic virtue and a contribution to democratic politics. In the second part of the book, this understanding of admirable militancy is applied to a wide range of protest styles, ranging from the nonviolent civil disobedience promoted by Gandhi and King to the armed insurgency promoted by Germany’s Red Army Faction and other urban guerrilla groups.


The picture of militant protest that emerges is ultimately a balanced one. It encourages the embracing of many forms of militancy as contributions to democratic politics. But it also encourages holding fast to militancy’s roots in the democratic impulses of people in revolt, rather than fetishizing it as an all-purpose approach to political action. If militancy is good for democracy, it is because of its sometimes-crucial role in facilitating the self-activity and self-organization of ignored or silenced people who rightly insist on being heard. (Click here to order a copy.) (Or read a short excerpt here.)



“Cutting across politically unhelpful and pernicious media-led divisions between supposedly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protesters, Stephen D’Arcy presents a rigorous and convincing defence of militancy. Anyone who takes protest and riot seriously needs to confront the issues that D’Arcy identifies — his arguments should give you much to think (and act) upon.

— Nina Power, Roehampton University

“Stephen D’Arcy cuts through the rhetorical fog of the right and the left and forces us to face issues of strategy, tactics, and goals head on, with both reason and passion. Languages of the Unheard is political philosophy at its best, not least because the writer is an engaged activist as well as a philosopher. It is hard to imagine a more important or timely book.”

– Mark Leier, Professor, History Department, Simon Fraser University, and author of Bakunin. 

Languages of the Unheard illuminates a fundamental truth far too many of those who flatter themselves to believe they inhabit democratic societies wish at all costs to avoid: Those who refuse by all necessary means to be silenced are the essential ingredient of democracy while those who seek to repress them comprise its very antithesis.”

Ward Churchill, author of Agents of Repression and Pacifism as Pathology

“I highly recommend this book to all people, young and old, especially to Indigenous youth who are at the forefront of this generation. It is important to know when and where, protests, blockades or militant actions have been successful and why!! The Oka Crisis, Idle No More, pipeline blockades and anti-fracking demonstrations are only the beginning of actions needed to bring awareness and change for people at the grassroots level.”

Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, Founding and Honourary Board Member, Ontario Native Women’s Association

“Are riots good for democracy? In Languages of the Unheard, Steve D’Arcy answers provocatively in the affirmative. With implacable logic, engaging prose and a sensitivity to moral and ethical complexities, Languages of the Unhearddemonstrates what radicals of all stripes intuitively know: to rebel is justified, and democracy—if it is to be found anywhere—is in the streets. By reframing debates concerning ‘violence’ and militant protest in new and fertile ways, D’Arcy has made an invaluable contribution to the intellectual arsenal of activists everywhere.”

Nikolas Barry-Shaw, co-author of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism

“In this wide-ranging discussion of militancy, Stephen D’Arcy takes the reader through an argument that begins with civil disobedience and ends with armed struggle. To a democrat, D’Arcy argues, none of these should be taboo. You may part company with him at some stage, but if you are really committed to democracy, you will have to consider his arguments.”

Justin Podur, Associate Professor at York University and author of Haiti’s New Dictatorship

“Contrary to those liberals and social democrats who argue that militant activism is ‘anti-democratic,’ Stephen D’Arcy makes a sustained argument coming from within democratic theory that forms of militant disruptive protest can instead be seen as crucial to defending and expanding participatory forms of democracy. Giving voice to those that have not been heard and developing political autonomy, direct action politics can be seen as a civic virtue and a crucial part of democratic forms of revolutionary social transformation.”

Gary Kinsman, author of The Regulation of Desire, co-author of The Canadian War on Queers, and editor of Sociology for Changing the World: Social Movements/Social Research