A few days ago, Twitter hid a tweet posted by Donald Trump for glorifying violence. The tweet threatened citizens in Minneapolis who are protesting against the murder of a black man, that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The media furore around the Twitter-Trump battle has been deafening: the latest in a series of controversies that have catapulted the debate about freedom of speech and censorship to the heart of current events.
Twitter’s decision was not unexpected; the move reflects a growing social outcry in the way that current issues are being talked about. It is the same social outcry that has driven the #BlackLivesMatter movement and that points out that saying ‘All lives matter’ is not the same thing.
Why have these debates about language and speech become so heated? Why does it matter so much how we talk about racial injustice or inequality?
The way we talk about events, and who talks about them, shapes public perception of current issues, and public response.
For example — did the climate crisis only become a crisis when we started calling it one? Scientifically, no. The ozone layer doesn’t really care whether we call it good or bad or the best thing since Netflix downloads. Environmental breakdown reached crisis level decades ago. But it became a priority for global leaders when it was labelled as one. When activists introduced the concept of declaring a climate emergency, governments around the world did — and in doing so, introduced an expectation that they would follow this up with action to address it (whether they do this or not is a topic for another time).
Calls for urgent action and mentions of ‘crisis’ by groups of scientific researchers were easy to dismiss when governments did. When the headlines reported the urgency of climate change as an opinion by a niche group, it remained that: an opinion, possible to differ from. Climate change is not news, it is unavoidable.
But when The Guardian updated their language guide to call the situation a climate crisis, it stopped being an opinion and became a presupposed fact. It shifted the public debate away from whether climate change really is a crisis, to what can be done to tackle it.
Language, used by those in an influential position, made the crisis — and this is what drives similar debates like #BlackLivesMatter.
I am not here to explain the perspective of those who are marginalised by the current power imbalances and injustices of society — for that check out Good Good Good, who have compiled a document of resources for anyone wanting to educate themselves.
But from a linguistic perspective, there is no news in the phrase ‘all lives matter.’ It’s a nothing statement. It doesn’t inspire action to change anything. On the other hand, to say that Black Lives Matter draws attention to the current gaps in the status quo, that make this something that needs to be said. By using this language, the statement reflects that our current society needs to be told this, and that we need to change in order to make this statement an inherent truth, not an opinion.
Fighting for the right language is a fight for accurate representation. It makes a difference whether we say we’re in a time of change or a time of crisis, whether inequality is ‘a shame’ or a burning injustice, whether demonstrations are riots or protests.
Every time we write we are making linguistic choices rooted in our bias, and depending who is talking, those word choices have the capacity to keep marginalised voices silenced, keep the vulnerable powerless, and to enforce a specific idea of what is normal or acceptable. When Presidents casually advocate shooting civilians in a Twitter status — people die.
Language is not neutral. What we say matters, who we are matters, and the places where we say it matters. To claim neutrality or that you’re not part of the debate is not really possible: the moment you start speaking about current issues you are forced to choose how to speak about it.
If we are passionate about meaningful change then it is our responsibility as citizen activists to examine our own language choices — what assumptions are we making when we speak? Who are we including? Excluding?
It’s not an easy task to identify linguistic bias, especially in places that may not declare an overt political stance. This takes time. But when people, especially those who have been marginalised and held back from shaping the narrative, tell us that the language we’re using to talk about an issue is wrong — it’s time to stop talking and listen.
Here is a great list from W Magazine of resources, reading material and black activists to follow to support justice for George Floyd, and because it is crucial that we diversify the voices we listen to, especially if we are in a position of privilege where we don’t have to fight to be heard.
I write about climate action and citizen activism. If you want to hear more like this or just want to say hi, you can follow me here or find me on Instagram @coffee_and_casstaways, Twitter @casstaways, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.