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The Seven Deadly Sins of Politi-Speak
If you’d asked me six years ago to write a call to action to inspire people to participate in my social justice group, it would have gone something like this:
“The United States of Amerikkka has always been and will always be an ecocidal White supremacist settler-colonialist police state. Join our never-ending intersectional struggle to dismantle the hegemonic forces of racial capitalism, imperialism and cis-hetero-patriarchy.”
I’m exaggerating, but only a little. (I would have used only one “k” in Amerika). Will you join my group? Wonderful, now we are a coalition of two.
Two recent life changes landed me outside the left-activist bubble I’d inhabited for the past 30 years. In doing research for a book on how to communicate across lines of difference, I started talking with conservatives about issues we vehemently disagree on. From immigration to climate change to police violence, I gave—and received—an earful.
I also moved to a rural area, a place where most people, including many progressives, aren’t tuned in to the latest Twitter dustup and aren’t up to date on social justice jargon. By and large, folx are still folks, Latinx are still Latinos, and intersectionality is a street corner, not a way of understanding oppression.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Academic and activist jargon and concepts obscure more than they clarify, and alienate more than they attract people to the cause. Likewise, overbearingly negative broadsides that paint our nation as hopelessly doomed make people pull the covers up over their heads. Once I got a little distance from what I’ll call “politi-speak,” I realized that it leaves me cold and demoralized, and that I remain involved in the struggle, not in the thrall of politi-speak, but despite it.
There are seven types of politi-speak that I believe repel more supporters than they attract.
1. Big Words and Concepts
Terms that derive from the academic, legal, or policy world make people outside these circles feel confused, stupid or ashamed. To cope with these unpleasant feelings, they either withdraw or develop a feeling of anti-elitist resentment. This dynamic alienates people without advanced degrees and makes them more favorably inclined toward right-wing populist appeals.
Jargon can also generate distrust. If your meaning isn’t clear, someone not already on your side might suspect that you’re concealing your true intentions behind fancy words. Or that you’re a showoff or a phony who doesn’t even know what you’re talking about.
The lexicon of social justice is always changing, with many of the changes originating inside the academy. For those on the outside, all of a sudden, people are saying “BIPOC” as if by decree. And they’re talking about toxic masculinity and White fragility. How many ordinary Americans can even define these terms? One could be forgiven for thinking, “I don’t know what they’re talking about, but it sounds like they’re dissing me.”
If a new term is necessary, introduce and explain what important truth it illuminates. If it’s hard to articulate its real-world value, it probably doesn’t have much; in which case, save it for the classroom.
People with advanced degrees may worry about “dumbing down” the discourse or insulting the intelligence of their audience. But being plain-spoken says nothing about the intelligence of the speaker or the audience. The bigger risk runs in the other direction—insulting people by speaking in a highbrow manner that excludes people who don’t know the lingo.
2. Othering Language
Social justice advocates paint a multiracial future but sometimes use language that belittles or even demonizes certain groups of people, typically those who are White, male and/or straight. There is, among progressives, gleeful anticipation of the day when all the old White dinosaurs die off and leave us in peace, and this sentiment has not escaped the old White dinosaurs’ notice.
Lifting up marginalized groups doesn’t require putting down others. If people perceive themselves to be cast aside as second-class citizens, they are going to be extremely wary if not outright hostile to the goals of those who are doing the othering.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s “beloved community” stands as a model for the kind of radical inclusivity that can dispel the White minority’s fear of losing ground. Punching down at “white trash” does the opposite. It kills solidarity. At a time when many on the political right cast themselves as the persecuted victims of woke cancel culture, we win by throwing our arms open wide and inviting everyone into a future that is altruistic, inclusive, and gracious, not competitive, vindictive, or petty.
When considering whether to amplify a derogatory meme or label, I ask myself whether it adds anything that can help explain or solve a problem. And if it passes the first test, I ask who the audience is and whether anyone who doesn’t already “get it” is more likely to be enlightened or antagonized. For example, if I want White women to wear masks in stores, this “Karen” meme fails on both counts.
If any mask resister was swayed by this meme, I’ll eat my mask for lunch.
This is a hard one. There’s so much wrong in the world and, in a modern, complex society, the problems tend to be multilayered and interconnected. The temptation to fully explain and contextualize is ever present, but doing so often takes the form of abstraction and, worse, browbeating the audience for not “getting it.”
A good organizer or messenger knows how to convey the nub of the problem in ways just about everyone can understand. And they do it without making anyone feel stupid for not having already seen the light.
Let’s say you’re organizing to shut down a local industrial polluter. Which call to action is going to be more motivating?
“Once again, the forces of extractive capitalism are externalizing their losses on the frontline poor and BIPOC people of this community. We demand the decolonization of structures of oppression that exploit our bodies and natural resources.”
“I’m mad at the company that’s dumping waste in our drinking water and is too cheap to clean it up—who else is mad and wants to do something about it?”
Every minute spent lecturing is a minute of not listening. People will remember how you made them feel (heard or unheard, appreciated or belittled, inspired or hopeless) more than they will remember what you said. It’s the compassion, humor, and positive vibes, not the pedagogy, that will keep them coming back for more.
A rant is a lecture delivered with anger and without compassion, and it tends to backfire pretty spectacularly. Unless the audience already completely agrees with you, a rant will make them recoil or lash back with a counter-rant.
The rant puts the ranter at the center at the cost of getting to understand and connect more deeply with the other person. The legendary organizer George Goehl, director of People’s Action, believes that helping people make meaning of their lives—and the root causes of their suffering—is the essential task of organizing, and that this happens when the organizer gives people the space to open up. Rants suck all the oxygen out of the room.
Nobody’s a bigger Debbie Doomsday than I am. I understand the compulsion to broadcast everything I think I know about how utterly fucked we are. I also know that there’s nothing more demobilizing than telling people there’s no hope. Reagan promised “morning in America.” Trump predicted “so much winning.” If you’re a pessimist, you may see optimists as suckers for con artists like Trump. But if you take away people’s hope, they will look to someone who will restore it.
“You have to give the people hope,” said Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official. Meanwhile, progressive activists keep reminding us that “justice is a constant struggle,” a statement as demoralizing as it is true.
6. Dehumanizing Categories
When I first started hearing the terms “BIPOC” and “Latinx,” I had a negative reaction but didn’t know why. What I’ve come to realize is that, in my mind, these terms dehumanize the people they are meant to lift up. For me, “people of color” conjures up just that… people of color. The acronym BIPOC strikes me as clinical and degrading. References to “Black bodies” instead of “Black people” also trigger some alarm bells in my mind—do they want me to see African Americans as whole people or merely as “bodies”? If we want people to join a human rights campaign, it’s crucial that the humans whose rights are at stake be full human beings, not political props.
You can be pissed off and you can be depressed and you can be in pain, but as soon as you start calling people out for not being as oppressed, as compassionate, or as well-informed as you, your hurt moves into the background, and all the other person sees is your negative judgment of them. Disdain, no matter how justified you believe it to be, alienates all but the already converted. If you’re on your high horse, someone will try to knock you off it.
One of the holy grails of organizing and communicating is to meet people where they’re at, not where you wish they were at. If I’m a personal trainer with a client who hasn’t exercised in 10 years, the first thing I’d do is have them walk (if they’re able) for 10 minutes on the treadmill, not kill themselves in an hourlong kickboxing class. I’m not going to lecture them about their sedentary lifestyle. I’m going to give them workouts they’re willing and able to do and, bit by bit, move them toward running the half-marathon.
The same goes for engaging people politically. If people aren’t likely to know what a word means, or are apt to react negatively to it, then the question that must be asked is whether the tradeoff is worth it. Is it so mission-critical to introduce a word or concept that it’s worth the risk of turning off the not-yet-converted? Is a sarcastic tweet, however clever, going to galvanize new supporters or paint your cause in a negative light?
A few years ago, I participated in a direct action against a bank that finances fossil fuel development. We sat in a circle in a downtown intersection chanting protest movement classics such as, “The people united will never be defeated.” Someone suggested a song. What song? We brainstormed. How about “This Land is Your Land?” a 60-something White woman offered. A youngish White woman who had been leading the chants snorted in disgust. “No, we’re not going to sing that.” The older woman, looking confused, asked why not. After some eye rolling, the younger woman said, “If you don’t know…I’m not going to get into it right now.” The older woman looked downward and got very quiet while the rest of the group exchanged smug, knowing glances. We had all collaborated in the humiliation of a fellow activist who was so committed she was willing to spend a day in jail but who hadn’t received the memo about how an old folk tune negates Indigenous land claims. Instead of meeting her where she was at, we acted superior and risked repelling her from the movement.
Listen to where people are at and to how they talk about their problems, the words they use and those they do not. What keeps them up at night or stoned all day? Who’s messing with them and who else is suffering the same injuries? What good things do they want in their lives and who else wants those good things? For those of us in the hope-and-change business, our job is to listen to people’s problems, connect them with kindred souls and work together to create a roadmap to the promised land. If the signposts on the map are incomprehensible—or obscured by a fog of snark—we are all lost.
Erica Etelson is a depolarization researcher specializing in political communication and the author of Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide. A former human rights attorney and longtime activist, she has engaged in legal, grassroots, and electoral campaigns in support of a range of environmental and social justice issues and candidates. Erica is a member of the National Writers Union and an active member of Working America, AFL-CIO. She can be reached at www.ericaetelson.com.