Activists need to be mindful of their language

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Eva Blue   Best-selling author Roxane Gay gave a workshop on writing with passion on Friday, Feb. 17.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Eva Blue

Best-selling author Roxane Gay gave a workshop on writing with passion on Friday, Feb. 17.


On Thursday Feb. 16 and Friday Feb. 17, I had the privilege of seeing the activist and author of “Bad Feminist” Roxane Gay, give a lecture and lead a writing workshop. Although she had many lessons to teach us, what struck me the most was her view on the careless ways in which we treat language as activists. 

She talked about how so much activist work hinges on slogans: “Nasty Woman,” “Love Trumps Hate,” and so on. But we don’t think about the meaning behind those catchy slogans. Even if we reappropriated the term “Nasty Woman,” it does not change the fact that it was originally meant as an insult. 

And no matter how deeply we love, it does not erase the fact that there is so much hatred in this world. Not only that, but in that phrase we put Trump’s name right in the center, ignoring the possible implications. I agree with Gay’s assessment: we need to be more conscious of our use of language, and remember that activism is more than just catchy phrases.

I remember, shortly after the Women’s March, seeing a post circulating online about how to have the most memorable protest sign. At first, I was mystified by the variety of witty quips or pop culture references on some of the signs offered as examples. Looking back on it now, all I can think of are Roxane Gay’s criticisms. 

While it is certainly true that witty language can motivate or inspire people, it needs to do much more than that. The words we use should be more than just witty phrases that, at the end of the day, mean nothing. Instead of focusing our efforts on making the most creative protest signs, perhaps it would be more valuable to focus our energy elsewhere. For instance, instead of relying on shallow rallying cries to unite us, we should open up dialogues with people unlike ourselves, to find common ground and form stable support systems. Maybe that is what can really unite us.

Now, I don’t think that ‘rallying cries’ are entirely useless, nor do I begrudge people who use them. Much like safety pins, they are a nice display of solidarity, but they do little else. 

They are indeed a jumping point, an entryway into much larger discussions. However, even when we do decide to create slogans to help boost morale, we still need to be conscious of our use of language. Current slogans seem to center around insults from either Trump or his supporters. Instead, we should use language that boosts us up instead of reminding us how others might try to tear us down. And we must also remember that Trump is merely a symptom of a much larger systematic illness. 

Activism is so much more than resisting the current administration; we must also resist and change the system that gave rise to Trump in the first place. Our language shouldn’t be so narrow as to focus only on the current administration. We must also be critical of the past, and use our language to express this.

Roxane Gay brought up another important point: that the truth is more important than ever. We must speak the truth loudly and often, as Trump and his supporters attempt to legitimize the news. That is part of the reason why we must be more careful with our language. We must be blunt and direct with our messages and always speak the truth. 

Though people on the Left tend to focus on the Right’s “fake news,” we must also be aware that even liberals and leftists can fall prey to fake news. And we should actively fight against fake news by being conscious consumers and by using language accurately and deliberately while discussing current events. 

It is easy to echo the same phrases that everyone else seems to be using. However, we all must become more conscious of the way we use language in our activism. We all need to speak the truth above all else so that it becomes harder for the Right to deny it. We must use language as a way to continue conversations instead of just starting them. And we must be aware of what we say and the impact of our words on others and on social movements as a whole. Language is a powerful tool in activism; we must use it to its full potential.