• Sammy Richter

Unintended Consequences of Poorly Named Reform Movements

"Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs." -Pearl Strachan Hurd (politician and author)

As students, we’ve learned the importance and impact that words have through the novels and poems of skilled writers in English class, the great documents of history, and the precise lab procedures of scientific inquiries. Slogans and their carefully selected words have the power to unite (or divide) groups or successfully advertise their cause and its urgency to millions.

However, they can only drive desired reform if the words chosen accurately represent the meaning behind the slogan. Selecting a name for a reform movement can seem like a trivial step, but we’ve recently seen how a singular term has the power to attract or push away support for a cause. Over the past year, there has been a major rise in political and social movements in the U.S., including calls to “Defund the Police,” engage in “Social Distancing,” and stop “Climate Change,” each of which embody calls to action that have proved divisive. Since the death of George Floyd, there, in fact, has been a shift towards accepting police reform proposals that were once viewed as extremely radical, but the names of some of these appeals seem to repulse large groups of people.

From the start, the call to “Defund the Police” has drawn huge resistance and panic from people all across the political spectrum. Much of this opposition can be chalked up to the drastic and frankly inaccurate name of the movement. At its root, the campaign is simply calling to reallocate some government funding away from the police force and to other locally funded government agencies. Part of the logic behind the shift of money is that experts in agencies that address mental health and substance abuse can better handle many of the emergency situations to which police are routinely called, thereby decreasing the tragic and often unnecessary deaths of civilians at the hands of police officers.

This movement has never called to abolish or remove all funding from police departments; instead, it simply urges a careful reconsideration of how money is distributed on a local and state level. Advocates of “Defund the Police” also argue that granting more money to social services rather than law enforcement agencies can actually address the reasons for crime at the root cause, decreasing crime rates in the long run. I’m sure all of this sounds coherent and convincing, so why does the movement garner so much opposition?

The use of the word “defund” in the slogan has a very polarizing effect because of how drastic it sounds. Without the context of what the movement’s actual goals are, it sounds like they want to remove all funds from the police department without any other plans for how to keep neighborhoods safe. Although many would call the phrasing of this slogan a mistake, its shocking words have amassed massive media attention internationally.

The detrimental impact of poorly-worded movements or slogans can also be seen in the more harmless phrasing of “social distancing” in response to the coronavirus. To most of us, it seems unfathomable that the word “social” could cause resistance to such a sensible plea, but the word can subconsciously hinder cooperation with a potentially life-saving call to action. By using that phrasing instead of “physical distancing,” the government has inadvertently conveyed the message that people should be separating themselves socially, not just in a physical sense, from people in their lives. The word “social” can imply that people should be decreasing their connections with others and, for some, it may connote a decreased use of social media. In reality, the slogan is only meant to promote safety by physically distancing, so the connotation of “social” can bleed dangerously into an otherwise uncontroversial appeal to protect the public health.

The unintended consequences of naming significant reform movements in imprecise ways can be seen in the “Gun Control” movement and even efforts to address “Climate Change.” For example, if the “Gun Control” movement was called “Gun Safety” or “Reducing Gun Violence,” perhaps gun owners might not feel so acutely that their rights are being stifled or controlled, and the emphasis would instead fall on protecting innocent people.

Alternatively, the overly-benign sounding and confusing phrasing of “Climate Change” minimizes the severity of the problem and how seriously people take environmental scientists and activists. The word “climate” suggests to many people that the problem has something to do with the weather instead of the larger physical environment, and the word “change” does not adequately convey the gravity of the crisis we currently face.

It would be great if we could go back in time and change the phrasing of some of these slogans, but, since we can’t. In the future, reform groups should more carefully consider the implications of using certain words, and the importance of balancing the palatability of their statement with getting it the attention it deserves.