When Words Do Matter

“Words should not seek to please, to hide the wounds in our bodies, or the shameful moments in our lives. They may hurt, give us pain, but they can also provoke us to question what we have accepted for thousands of years.”

― Nawal El Saadawi

Do the words we use in our work affect our choice of action?

One of the challenges we often face in the human rights field when we come together as organisations and institutions is agreeing on language. In the children’s rights space, the tendency is often to prioritise consensus over precision. This means outcomes are usually watered down so much that nothing radical or transformational ever comes out of such processes. 

While we can find reasons why this might be useful, rumbles of dissatisfaction spread far and wide, and increasingly people prefer to walk away than sign up to something that will have no impact on anyone’s life. 

Crucially, unless we put a name to the problem we’re trying to address, how can we possibly identify a plausible solution? “The act of naming is a diagnosis,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it.”

Vague, imprecise, aspirational or big all-encompassing words, like ‘ending violence’ or ‘tackling poverty’ are unlikely to help us truly understand their root causes, or their solutions. When words are diluted, it makes a violation less serious and, by extension, less reprehensible. This in turn makes us more likely to develop programmes that have unintended consequences. Similarly, this is when we may be tempted to seek shelter in jargon or sweeping generalisations to hide our ignorance of the real problem, or ensure nobody is offended.

But it’s also a matter of respect, to the survivors or victims, to truth, and by extension, to justice. “Naming”, Solnit remarks, “is the first step in the process of liberation.” Importantly, it is also about accountability, about identifying who has a responsibility to right the wrong, “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness,” she explains.

There is another question about language which is worth discussing and that is: should we pledge to use nonviolent language in our work? For example, a few years ago in CRIN we decided to emphasise that we wanted to focus on what we are ‘fighting for, rather than against.’ This was part of a conscious effort to not spend most of our energy pointing to ‘what was wrong,’ but more on ‘what should be done.’ 

But when we use battle or conquest metaphors like ‘fighting for,’ or ‘smashing the patriarchy,’ or ‘waging war on climate change,’ are we not responding to a problem with aggression and antagonism? And is that not the very same behaviour we are trying to remove from the system, society or world which we want to change? This is important because the use of words may lead us to particular choices of tactics. 

Indigenous lawyer and activist Sherri Mitchell says that the way we frame our movements determines whether they will be unifying or divisive. “We continue to use the divisive tools of conquest and expect them to provide us with a more unified outcome. They never will. We will never be able to unify the division that we see in the world if we keep engaging the practices of conquest, no matter how just we believe our cause to be,” she writes.

Perhaps this is more prevalent in Western societies where we still place more emphasis on individual pursuits of wealth or career success, and where words like growth, competition and winning are mostly seen as positive attributes. Perhaps this is different in other languages?

Ursula Le Guin had commented on the use of battle metaphors and said that to restructure our society we needed to restructure our language. Another option, she suggested, was “to realise that conflict is not the only human response to a situation and to begin to find other metaphors, such as resisting, outwitting, skipping, or subverting. This kind of consciousness can open the door to all sorts of new behaviour.”

Putting our efforts into spaces that require us to fight against something or someone can be draining and may only lead us to replace one evil for a slightly lesser evil. So what would this look like if we removed battle-related words from our strategies, plans and slogans? This would not be about putting a positive spin on messaging. Quite the opposite. This would be about approaching the problem differently, with precision, with understanding, but also with creativity. 

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

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