Language matters

More than ever, language matters.

Defund the police. Antiracist. Essential workers.

History is infused into the language we use. 2020 has presented the world with unforeseen challenges, and the way we talk to each other is straining to keep up. From the coronavirus to systemic racism, from confronting lingering inequities to celebrating everyday acts of heroism, we’re trying to find new ways to communicate as old, comfortable ideas fall away.

Analyzing the language of interesting times, we can see how words are being used to shock us out of our old patterns, try to reframe debates that have lasted generations, and help people understand why some work is considered more critical than others. We’re learning a lot about not just what to say, but how to say it. The language we choose is helping frame those debates – sometimes, working to undermine the very ideas they’re trying to embrace.

Say the unthinkable

During the civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death, there has been a call to radically rethink the role of policing in the United States. Out of a list of frustrations rooted in how the police have been historically biased against people of color has grown a rallying cry that gives those frustrations a voice:

Defund the police.

This is a big, bold statement. The first time you hear it, it shocks you. What would we do without the police? What would that world look like? In that respect, “Defund the police” accomplishes its goal; it challenges your basic assumption that police are necessary. It shifts the “Overton window,” the spectrum of ideas on social issues considered acceptable by the general public. But it also opens up a big question that can’t be answered in a three-word line: what comes next?

In the aftermath of the “defund the police” rallying cry, the debate centered on the radical aspect of “defunding” rather than initiating a debate around whether certain aspects of policing might be better addressed by social workers, or drug counselors. “Reimagine public safety” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it helps reframe the debate in terms everyone can agree to and understand. By not offering a plausible alternative, “Defund the police” ignited the wrong side of the candle and has had trouble sustaining the argument for rethinking how we address fundamental problems in our social fabric.

Challenge safe assumptions

Another example of language being recast to start a new conversation is in the title of Ibram X. Kendi’s book, “How to be an Antiracist.” The book explores how racism has rooted itself in aspects of our language and culture so deeply that it has become invisible, even to the people it disadvantages. But the central argument of the book is right there in the title: it’s not enough to “not be racist.” Not being a racist, in 2020, implicitly means that you’re on the side of the status quo.

Kendi’s point is to reframe the effort required to address and change systemic racism. To do that, everyone needs to examine the roots of their own privilege and how it affects others. White people who have quietly been “non-racists” haven’t historically been enough to change the complexion of racism in the United States. What are needed now are active allies, who hold each other accountable and aware of how deeply racism permeates our society. In that way, Kendi is using language to point us to an answer. By challenging the polar nature of “racist” and “non-racist” to accommodate a third term, “antiracist,” Kendi challenges our assumption that simply “not being racist” is enough. We all have to work at this together.

Reframe inequality

As the scope of COVID-19 began to emerge in February and March, and the United States started social distancing in earnest, restricting work by anyone who wasn’t an “essential worker.” Intuitively, we all understand that certain people need to work in order to have a functional society; doctors and nurses can’t stay home to treat people who need help during a pandemic.

But quarantining at home revealed some underlying truths about who is “essential” in the modern economy. For example, for food to reach households (an “essential” service if ever there was one), we need truck drivers, grocery store workers, food processors and many more. Multiply that by the number of categories the economy can’t do without, and suddenly a lot more workers become “essential.”

Over the last few months, the term “essential worker” has become entrenched in our everyday lexicon without close examination of what the word “essential” really means. Medical personnel are essential, but what about fast food employees? When we talk about essential workers, what we’re really saying is the work they do is essential. To really honor the risks essential workers take by going to work each day, we must do our best to provide them with the equipment they need to stay safe. Otherwise, we’re saying the words “essential workers,” but we’re communicating something very different.

Language has power

When the world is changing as quickly as it is today, the English language contorts itself to put words to new phenomena. Previous eras in American history have made a lasting impact on the language, from “Uncle Sam” in World War I, “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression and the “We can do it!” optimism of Rosie the Riveter. For anyone trying to communicate, from brands to individuals, now is a time to listen to emerging language, and be purposeful and mindful about the words we use ourselves.

To learn more about how brands are navigating these interesting times, click here to request our latest research. Or if you just want to talk about how to speak the language these days, our door is always open.



Craig Motlong | Strategy Director

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