No “Victories,” No “Defeats”: Watch Your Words If You Value Social Change

Taking a lesson from Standing Rock, we must be careful with language while working toward progress in the Trump years.

At Standing Rock. Photo by Rob Wilson.

When the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would deny Energy Transfer Partners a permit to tunnel under the Missouri River to build the Dakota Access pipeline, some hailed the decision as a “major victory” and a “win.” Certainly, it was a stunning achievement after months of protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux.

Political victories are not like sports.

The tribe’s lawsuit against the Army Corps says the pipeline “threatens the tribe’s environmental and economic well-being and would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious, and cultural significance to the tribe.” And while Native defenders, who call themselves water protectors, in a statement labeled the easement denial a “momentous victory,” they also put it into perspective: “one battle in the larger movement against injustice from the oil-based energy sector.”

The nuance is something we can learn from.

Of course the decision deserves celebrating. It is a rare sign of hope after months of protests and hundreds of arrests that culminated in water protectors facing civil rights-era brutality by police armed like a modern military. But the Sioux also recognized that the government decision is likely to be fleeting. President-elect Trump will have numerous options for overturning the decision. And even if the courts uphold it, Energy Transfer would likely accept a reroute of the pipeline, still providing an outlet for up to 570,000 barrels of fracked oil a day from fields in North Dakota to Illinois, where it will connect to existing pipelines that lead to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Political victories are not like sports, in which totals are accumulated in a win-loss column for time immemorial. They are about relative progress, partial gains, limits, contingency.

This can certainly be seen in President Obama’s record. His achievements have been piecemeal: the auto industry bailout, the climate action plan, increased scrutiny of police brutality, and limited protection to some 700,000 immigrants who arrived undocumented as children. Because political horse-trading leads to a mixed bag of policies, one can label the same outcome as both a victory and a defeat, which creates unnecessary oppositional framing.

Words like “setbacks” and “gains” guard against despair and overconfidence.

Navigating the Trump years will require a different mindset, as the federal government begins to focus on rolling back progressive policies. That includes dispensing with words like “victory” and “win,” “defeat” and “loss.” Instead, our language needs to reflect the reality of politics and history as a story of continual struggle. Terms like “gains” and “setbacks” are historically more accurate because there is never an unambiguous final victory.

Just as important, words like “setbacks” and “gains” guard against despair and overconfidence alike.

These terms mesh with the existing language of “movements,” “actions,” and “activists,” which allude to the perpetual and dynamic nature of social struggle rather than one with a single goal line.

Clearly, any landmark victory can be eroded given enough time and opposition, as has been the case with Roe v. Wade. Seeing the past ruling as a victory lulls us into sensing that the work is done rather than recognizing the many more achievements needed to widen access to abortion rights, as well as contraception, sex education, family planning, and health care for pregnant women.

Even the worst-case scenario, a conservative Supreme Court overturning Roe, does not spell utter defeat. The battle will move to new terrain, and in some deep-blue states more progressive laws and policies around reproductive rights would likely be implemented even as setbacks take place in other states.

Setbacks, not defeats. This is an assurance that it is possible to respond and find new paths to positive social change even after ground is lost.

In 2005, the Bush administration punctured the Safe Drinking Water Act with a loophole for hydraulic fracking. This setback led to the ruin of many communities, but it also invigorated the climate justice movement, which in turn achieved some of its greatest gains with the Keystone XL pipeline and now at Standing Rock.

Trump is still weeks away from the presidency, but this dynamic is already at work as new areas of struggle particularly open up in our cities. Mayors from Chicago to Santa Fe, New Mexico, have vowed to defy Trump’s threats to deport their undocumented citizens and tally their Muslim citizens. Trump’s victory offers an opportunity for progressives not only to turn cities into bulwarks of resistance against his extremist policies, but to go on the offensive by building bases of power there.

Over the next few months, many more setbacks will come, and some will have terrible consequences. As we are forced onto new ground, there will also be new issues to organize around, new groups of people who are radicalized, and new paths to power.

And there will be gains to celebrate and build upon.

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