Words are Important, Activists Need Better Branding


I’m in the middle of reading the eye-opening Democracy for Realists, and as I read through Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ systematic dismantling of nearly all my notions about democracy, I’ve become particularly drawn to the phenomenon of ‘framing effects’1. People’s opinions are generally not well-defined, and different wording of the same concept elicit different responses.

In his textbook Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age, Princeton sociologist Matthew Salagnik explains the importance of wording in surveys by noting how “Americans report being much more supportive of ‘aid to the poor’ than ‘welfare’ (Smith 1987; Rasinski 1989; Huber and Paris 2013).” Examples like this illustrate the importance of rhetoric and suggest that activists need better branding. Some have already nailed down this concept. Instead of “tax cuts for the rich”, we say “trickle-down economics.” Rather than “preserve inequitable systems,“ it’s “the American Dream is still attainable.” We don’t say the Affordable Care Act, we say Obamacare2.

As John Green frequently notes in his Crash Course history series, historians are generally terrible at naming. Names like UN Resolution 242 and the War of 1812 should make us wonder whether whoever named these things wanted us to forget about them. Unique names are the ones we remember—not numbers and dates. Instead of Kristallnacht, some argue for referring to the 1938 pogrom in Nazi Germany from November 9-10th as the November Pogrom. These people note how Kristallnacht, which translates literally as “crystal night”, was possibly coined by the Nazis as a euphemism to mask the extent of the atrocity. Hebrew University professor Moshe Zimmermann, an expert in German social history, even suggests the term leads to the idea that it was all “just a bagatelle of broken glass.”. Yet, November Pogrom universally obfuscates the significance of this event. Like the plethora of revolutions named after months in the year, we risk consigning Kristallnacht to the dustbin of history. Regardless of origin, a term like “crystal night” allows anyone even mildly open to abstract thought to grasp that there is a deeper meaning associated with the phrase. Today, the term Kristallnacht among non-German speakers is linked exclusively to this atrocity. There have been many pogroms, each one horrific in their own right, but there will only ever be one Kristallnacht.

“Abolish the police” and “defund the police” are both similarly memorable phrases, but unlike all the aforementioned examples, they lack this degree of abstraction. They provide absurd yet coherent meanings that can be taken literally, thereafter coloring the reception of the more reasonable explanations behind these calls3. While more abstract, the phrase “Black lives matter” can be received similarly. To those unfamiliar with the systematic issues the phrase has become a rallying cry for, the term evokes a response of “duh” or “of course” instead of “what” or “explain”. It is natural, therefore, for those who are not Black to wonder where they fit in and respond, “Yes, Blacks lives matter, but don’t all lives matter?”

The Chinese translation of Black Lives Matter is 黑人的命也是命, which in English literally translates to “Black lives are also lives.” As noted by the Letters for Black Lives project in About the Phrase 黑人的命也是命, some believe this translation fails to convey the more forceful statement inherent in “Black lives matter.” After experimenting with alternative phrases, however, the group decided to stick with this original translation, in part because this translation prevents responses along the lines of “all lives matter”. While I think this Chinese translation is excellent, I do agree that the English back translation does sound rather lackluster. Personally, I’ve instead taken 黑人的命也是命 to mean “Black lives are our lives too”, which gets at the same abstract sentiment expressed by Black Lives Matter while leaving less room for both willful and unintentional misinterpretation4.

The strength of rhetoric lies in its ability to make people remember as well as understand them. As we acknowledge the significance of slurs and micro-aggressions5, it stands to reason we should be similarly aware of how our word choices influence how others perceive our stances. Taking the lead from Andrew Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” and science’s rebranding of global warming into climate change, we should rephrase our slogans to leave less room for both willful and unintentional misinterpretation. Ideas are important, words are too.

  1. While I’ve previously come across this concept before, particularly regarding survey design, this book helped me think more critically about the consequences of framing. 

  2. Now depending on your view on Obama, this could be a good or bad thing, but the key here is that calling the Affordable Care Act Obamacare increases partisanship and has reduced support for its policies. 

  3. I think there are justifiable concerns regarding the perception of what ‘reform’ means and can see why an alternative phrase is needed, how about ‘redo the police’? 

  4. It is eminently less chantable though. 

  5. Even this term could be better named. We’re actively minimizing this very real effect by calling it “micro” and making it sound like microaggressions are just whiny complaints about every little thing.