Charged language contributes to social perceptions of public assembly


Fair Use Image: FLICKR Photo Illustration: Sophie Jaro

Language should be used thoughtfully and with purpose.

A large crowd of Baltimore citizens gathers downtown holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop the War on African American Youth.” Emotionally-charged words like “thug” and “ghetto” are crossed out on the brightly-colored signs.
The sign’s language seems more animated than even the energetic crowd. Is it the enlarged letters? Is it the neon colors?
No, it is the controversy.
Over the past six months, these protests and riots have taken place in numerous cities in response to the deaths of unarmed African-American men by local police. The events themselves have been powerful, but what keeps national awareness alive is the influential language that can strike any indifferent bystander with its intensity.
“Racist”, “riot,” “murder,” and “thug” ring out across the U.S. as these highly controversial incidents of racial profiling and loss continue to follow a disturbingly similar pattern.
Obviously, the immorality that accompanies the deaths procures a strong and passionate following. But within this national crisis that is so clearly immoral and unjust, there lies dispute over the use of these words.
Hearing a charged word like “thug,” one may immediately imagine a stereotypical large, well-built man with bad intentions. But that’s not fair.
Yet, this stereotypical image floods the mind when we hear it on the radio, read it in newspapers, and view it on television.
But it doesn’t have to.
These words can be framed in a far more useful manner if, instead of using them as a means of discrimination, one can use them to fuel a passion for equality on the streets and in the justice system. One can use the powerful language as a building block for future conversation, because, as satisfying as it can be to feel passionately about a subject, it is far more important to act on those feelings than it is to just feel them.
Free speech offers a chance for others to share their opinions and form new ones.
The media chooses language with strong impact on the public view of the deaths of these men. For example, the media’s use of “riot” instead of “free speech assembly” or other boisterous terms to represent otherwise calm events can have a manipulative effect on those who listen to it.
The media can be a helpful and efficient way to stay up to speed on developing news stories, but the danger lies within the inaccuracy of news source’s terminology. Emotionally-charged words are used because they catch the ear of passive listeners, making television programs more popular. So next time a news program uses manipulative language, don’t take the statement at face value. Instead, think more critically about the claim made.
When considering the language media uses to describe public assemblies, especially those espousing social change, terms should be used as a spark to ignite the flame of meaningful conversation, not exploit the current event to draw in readers and viewers.
It’s important to explore how to better use, or whether to avoid, words like “uprising” or “thug” or find alternatives. It lies on our shoulders how we use the language of protest; be it in a rousing, reflective, or thought-provoking manner.