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‘No Accountability, No Peace’: Sloganeering and the Language of the Left

While conservatives favor blunt language, progressives are more attuned to its potential harm, sometimes to the point of denying words their simple meaning.

A profusion of left-wing slogans at a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C.
Even though I’m in a profession where I’m sometimes paid by the word, I prefer to use phrases that are short, simple and easily understood. That seems to get harder and harder in covering politics and culture.

There is a constant demand on the left to use words that are more sensitive and less hurtful. Sometimes this makes perfect sense. Other times it feels like they want to fight on the wrong battlefield.

Almost as soon as Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder against George Floyd on Tuesday, a talking point/social media meme emerged: This is not justice, this is accountability. This was the line taken by, among many others, Bernie Sanders, Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and even Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who oversaw Chauvin’s prosecution.

The distinction being drawn was that the outcome didn’t serve as justice for two reasons. One is that true justice would involve George Floyd still being alive, rather than his murderer being punished. The other is that, given the long history of police violence perpetrated against African Americans, including killings, clear victory in this one case did not mean justice had been achieved.

Those may be legitimate arguments, but in this case — this legal case — it seems like the word justice is almost dictionary-definition perfect: The correct outcome in a judicial proceeding. Why the demand to argue with the clear meaning of a word in order to make a political point?

This is not an isolated linguistic debate. It comes just after the recent overbaked argument about whether President Biden’s infrastructure plan, or parts of it, qualify as infrastructure, namely caregiving for children, the elderly and those with disabilities. Mother Jones was not alone in decrying this as a “semantic argument,” stressing the importance of Biden wanting to support women workers as part of the recovery.

But semantics do matter in politics. For years, the right has found success by putting potent, clever labels on things that help make their arguments for them: Recasting estate taxes as the “death tax,” for example, or succeeding in switching usage from the clinical description of intact dilation and evacuation to the soberingly graphic “partial-birth abortion.”

On the left, the impulse is more aspirational. You increase the power of your vocabulary by borrowing meanings, asserting that some things actually mean other, good things — that child care is infrastructure, or that housing is a human right or health care is a human right.

Or you think metaphorically but in reverse — that even justice is not justice if it is incomplete.

Names Can in Fact Hurt Me

Sometimes political and cultural terms change for good reason. Any group of people should be called what they prefer to be called. These can evolve as older terms take on the stink of disparagement.

Consider the terms "crippled," "handicapped" and "disabled." Each in its turn, decades ago, was the standard, neutral way to describe people who had some sort of physical or mental issue to contend with. Each took on a negative or pejorative connotation and was then supplanted. At this point, the preferred usage is "people with disabilities."

In general, it’s frowned upon, at least in some circles, to use terms such as “disabled” or “gay” or “the poor” as nouns. Using categorical terms as adjectives — gay people — is preferred because then the persons described aren’t being defined solely by that characteristic or part of their identity.

“When writing or speaking about people with disabilities it is important to put the person first,” according to the National Disability Authority of Ireland. “Catch-all phrases such as 'the blind', 'the deaf' or 'the disabled,’ do not reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people with disabilities.”

Personally, I’m okay with being called a Jew rather than a Jewish person or person of Jewish faith. I’m not alone in this, but it’s becoming increasingly rare to see the noun stand on its own like that. "Do not use the collective noun 'the homeless,' just like we don't use 'the elderly' or 'the disabled,'" Paula Froke, editor of the AP Stylebook, said last year.

Sometimes, there seems to be an effort to try to avoid defining people at all. The term “ex-felon,” for instance, has the benefit (here I’m thinking like a journalist) of being short and punchy. It’s still commonly used, but increasingly I see and hear such individuals described as “formerly incarcerated individuals.”

If I use the term ex-felon during an interview with advocates on the left, I know I’ll be corrected, so I just use the longer phrase. But what’s wrong with calling them that, as I would in print?

Back in 2016, the Obama Justice Department barred internal use of the terms “felon” and “offender,” arguing these put an undue burden on those who had committed crimes. This may sound like a parody of the old conservative complaint about coddling criminals — to the point of not wanting to hurt their feelings — but the thinking was that such terms held people back at a time when both conservatives and liberals were becoming more invested in helping them successfully reenter society after they’d served out their sentences.

“I have come to believe that we have a responsibility to reduce not only the physical but also the psychological barriers to reintegration,” wrote Karol Mason, then an assistant attorney general and now the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The labels we affix to those who have served time can drain their sense of self-worth and perpetuate a cycle of crime.”

‘No Person Is Illegal’

Hours before the Chauvin verdict was announced, Tishaura Jones, the new mayor of St. Louis, introduced herself at her swearing-in this way: “My name is Tishaura Oneda Jones. I use the she/her pronouns.”

This is one of the small victories of the transgender rights movement. From Zoom sessions and Twitter handles to mayoral inaugurations, it’s becoming de rigueur for people to state their preferred pronouns, to clarify their own identities and thus undermine the assumption that people necessarily claim the gender that matches their apparent biological sex. The term “deadnaming” is coming into greater currency to decry the act of referring to a trans person by the name they were known by before transitioning.

It’s already become so common for people to refer to singular individuals as “they,” whether they use they or not, that it barely burns my old grammarian’s ears anymore. I used to think that trans people were fighting on the wrong hill by worrying about something as seemingly small — yet deeply ingrained — as pronoun usage. There are still real legal and political battles to be fought, after all. Yet the rapidly increasing willingness of people to declare their pronouns is a symbolic display of acceptance.

Which is why it will be a while before you hear any prominent conservative declare “he/his” after his name. True to their more diverse coalition, Democrats are more closely attuned to the shifting terminologies of identity.

Sometimes overly attuned. It’s pretty common now for those on the left to refer to “Latinx” communities, even though polls have shown that the term is almost universally rejected by Latinos themselves.

Five years ago, U.S. House Republicans defeated a Democratic amendment that would have replaced the terms “alien” and “illegal alien” in federal law with “foreign national” and “undocumented foreign national.”

But on Monday, the Biden administration ordered federal immigration and border agencies not to use the terms “alien,” “illegal alien” or “assimilation.” Conservatives who have been beating Biden up over the border crisis might think the administration could spend its time more wisely on matters other than the optics of language.

However, those on the left often insist that their safety is threatened by the utterance of offensive or contrary ideas. In 2017, a survey of college students found that 81 percent agreed with the idea “words can be a form of violence.”

Justice Must Be Done

Last summer, news outlets across the country (including Governing) swiftly changed their style regarding the word "Black." Now the word is commonly capitalized to make it clear that it describes not color but a group of people with a shared lineage and culture. This change — an echo of W.E.B. Du Bois’ insistence a century ago that the word “Negro” be capitalized — came about, in fact, in response to the racial justice protests triggered by George Floyd’s murder.

Here I say "murder" because Derek Chauvin has been convicted of that crime. News outlets generally avoid the word murder unless and until there’s a conviction. With Floyd’s death, there was even some media hesitation about calling it a killing. After all, part of the defense’s contention was that he died for other reasons than Chauvin kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes (a claim the jury quickly dismissed).

As soon as the verdict was announced, I saw tweets asking, “Now will you say George Floyd was murdered?” This demonstrates another impulse on the left. Progressives seek sensitivity when it comes to describing members of marginalized communities, but they demand blunt language when it comes to describing their opponents.

The term “racially charged” has come in for considerable derision in recent years, with progressives demanding that various statements be called out simply as racist. Similarly, President Trump’s critics were not satisfied unless many of his statements were labeled as lies and his false claims about election fraud be described with the Nazi-era term "Big Lie."

We all know that words matter. That’s why they trigger argument. The two parties are still split over the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” let alone the movement and policy goals it represents.

The slogan “no justice, no peace” has been deadeningly familiar at progressive rallies for years now. If the Chauvin verdict had gone the other way, we would no doubt be hearing it at rallies across the country today and through the weekend, at least. But in this case — if only in this case — justice was served.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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