As writers, we’ve always believed words have tremendous power. Our team’s livelihood depends on choosing ours wisely. Thinking about meaning and double meanings. Eliminating the unnecessary ones. Leaning into the emotional, more impactful ones. As we look at what is happening with protests, media coverage, and manifestos, we immediately jump to the language we are using, what they mean, and the positive and negative impacts they have to right wrongs and drive change.
Words define movements
Black Lives Matter. These three simple words have taken far too long to take hold. But finally, after watching the appalling videos of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Amy Cooper, Black Lives Matter has finally gained meaning and momentum more broadly.
Whether it was connecting these words and visuals in such a visceral way in a one-week period. Or whether stay-at-home orders had more of us finally paying attention, they have landed. And thank you to Twitter, memes, and other social media tools for ruthlessly pointing out the stupidity of the “All Lives Matter” counter argument. Words that try to equivocate or make everyone feel ok fail us. Especially at this moment. Especially with this demand. We must see what is happening to Black people. And we have to do something about it. Black Lives Matter as a call to action is so tragic because we have had to be told this when it should just be a given. And still people argue against it. WTF, America? It’s long past time we get behind Black Lives Matter.
Words demand accountability
Sadly, the “all” argument isn’t even the worst affront during these times (and it’s really bad). The use of the passive voice in media headlines is absolutely criminal. I don’t say this solely as a stylistic choice, although it’s bad in that way, too. What we’ve been seeing in recent weeks is selective attribution of accountability using an already shameful writing habit. Before now, though, I don’t think I ever fully understood how evil and manipulative passive voice could be.
Virtually every corporate writing guide says, “Avoid passive voice,” mostly because it’s boring and doesn’t engage you with the content. But in news, passive voice completely erases the party taking the action. For example, “A photographer was shot in the eye” fails to acknowledge that the police were the ones shooting. Whereas, “A protestor struck a journalist with his own microphone” clearly defines who is accountable. When these different treatments happen in the same publication, manipulation and bias are at work (we’re looking at you, The New York Times). Passive voice is a device used to desensitize us. In these times, that is beyond dangerous.
Words can keep us stuck
With the passive voice comes the risk of justifying holding on to past perceptions. People blurring the lines between protesters, rioters, and looters are leaning on language to judge and missing the bigger point. As Kim Jones so powerfully explained, by focusing on the what, on just these words, we fail to ask the more important question – why? Why are there riots? Why is there looting? Digging into this harder question is where change will come from. When we better understand our past (how is the Tulsa Race Massacre not in history books?), we can more meaningfully look at that why, and make change the priority.
At the same time, many people are also using words to defend their stance against change. “Defund the police” is a controversial phrase that makes people really uncomfortable. But most of that discomfort comes from not understanding what is meant by that phrase and being unwilling to dig deeper. For some, words can be blockers because they presume they know what is meant. To defund means to remove funding from. It doesn’t mean taking away allfunding. It just means reprioritizing funding. Senator Kamala Harris has adopted the more palatable “Reimagine the police” approach, but what if softening the language lessens the potential progress? Maybe it’s too early for compromise and we need some zingers in there to get more people’s attention and prod them to get educated.
But there is hope. More Americans have deepened their understanding of the systemic racism facing Black people in the past weeks. More companies are being vocal (Ben & Jerry’s still wins, though). And even definitions are being updated. Kennedy Mitchum, a young Black woman, contacted Merriam-Webster to complain that their definition of racism was lacking depth and ignored the aspect of systemic oppression and racial inequality. As a result, people often pointed to the dictionary definition to tell her that her interpretation of the racism she’s experienced was wrong or not, in fact, racism. Props to Merriam-Webster for responding quickly and committing to develop an expanded definition that better reflects our world and the realities of people of color. It’s time.
Words change the world
The power of language never ceases to amaze us. At this critical moment in our history, in some ways it is more impactful than ever. For our team, as we become more educated about the issues and the opportunities to be allies, to stand up, speak out, and support, words are our weapons and our work as writers means we are trained to do more. That is our commitment.