We all learn that journalism in the United States is free, independent, and, on the balance, objective. But journalists habitually use loaded language to cover certain topics, feeding preconceptions and prejudices that favor the government and other inequitable institutions. Uncritical use of politically-charged terms threatens democratic culture by inhibiting conversation about important topics. Objectionable or virtuous practices don’t need to be couched in biased language to be recognized as such. As George Orwell identified, this opens the door to the “defense of the indefensible” (Orwell). Today, we’re going to explore how some terminology is wielded to misconstrue what’s actually happening.
• Practice media literacy to identify the loaded language in common political discourse.
• Support the community organizations linked below each definition whose struggles are minimized by the misuse of politically-charged terms.
Means: A system where one country controls others through “formal annexations or various forms of informal domination” (Britannica). For example, 20% of the world was ruled from afar by the British Empire (BBC).
Unless: It’s American imperialism. Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are colonies of the U.S. empire in the most literal sense: their residents are subject to U.S. laws without full political rights or representation (The Progressive, The Real News).
Support self-determination for Guam and all colonized peoples.
Means: Someone who moves from one country to another.
Unless: They’re well-off white people in non-white countries, in which case they’re “expats” or, more recently, “digital nomads.” Americans in Hong Kong are “expats.” Filipino domestic workers there are considered immigrants (The Guardian). Americans in Mexico are expats. Mexicans in the U.S. are immigrants. Expats aren’t expected to assimilate or pledge allegiance to their new homes in the same way that immigrants often are (The Atlantic).
Fight for immigration justice by supporting Cosecha and COFAMIDEAF.
Unless: They’re imprisoned because of struggling against injustice in the United States. Members of the Puerto Rican independence, Black power, and Indigenous movements are incarcerated based on “evidence manufactured by the government” or serve sentences “far beyond the usual for the offenses involved” (DOJ). There are over 100 political prisoners in the U.S. today (Street Sheet, AfGJ).
Support political prisoners with the Jericho Movement.
Definition: Spreading information to influence public opinion (Britannica).
Unless: It’s the U.S. government that’s spreading it. The Pentagon “information apparatus” that swayed coverage of Guantánamo Bay would, under different circumstances, be called a Department of Propaganda (NYTimes). Police departments staging viral videos in order to win the “PR battle” and garner public support would count as propaganda, too, as would any other branch of the U.S. government with a public relations office (Daily Dot, Encyclopedia, Counterpunch). The United States has conducted explicit domestic propaganda operations since WWI (Britannica) and freely admits to releasing information with little regard for truth solely to exert pressure on its adversaries (NBC News).
Definition: Violence occurring at a protest. While violence generally means physical harm against a person, protestors are accused of violence against inanimate objects such as windows, dumpsters, or traffic cones (Rolling Stone, Current Affairs).
Unless: It’s police committing violence at a demonstration. The police are the only people who show up to protests with tear gas, rifles, military vehicles, shotguns, and riot gear. They are the only ones who beat people senselessly and drag them into waiting vans (Slate). The police are not accused of being “counterproductive,” of “destroying their own neighborhoods,” or of being “outside agitators,” and they are never accused of violence against inanimate objects.
Some people think protestors can only criticize police violence if they can prove that there were no “violent protestors” among them, though the violence from police is in each and every case many orders of magnitude greater than any act committed by the most militant protestor. Some think that any “violence” attributed to protestors makes an entire movement illegitimate, though they wouldn’t say police violence illegitimates the entire U.S. government. One-sided denunciations of “protest violence” are harmful because we know that disruptive, extralegal protest was necessary for the abolition of slavery, the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, and the end of the Vietnam War (Yes! Magazine).
Denounce the state repression of activists.
Refuse to tolerate racist, conservative critiques of protest movements while unjust systems remain unaccountable.
Definition: The system of government in a certain country (Cambridge Dictionary). Political elites talk about the “North Korean regime” (Wilson Center) or the “Maduro regime” in Venezuela (Atlantic Council).
Unless: The government is a U.S. ally. Since every country is ruled by a certain government, a neutral observer could accurately talk about the “Washington regime” in the United States, the “Johnson regime” in the United Kingdom, or the “Canadian regime.” Only governments opposed by the U.S. are called regimes. Though the word “regime” as commonly used has associations with harsh or dictatorial rule, autocratic nations that are friendly to the United States aren’t called “regimes,” either: journalists write about the “Iranian regime” but not the “Saudi Arabian regime.”
Definition: A nation that threatens world peace by violating international norms (World Atlas).
Unless: The U.S. is the rogue state. The U.S. is far outside international norms in its positions on Palestine (The Guardian) and Cuba (Salon). In 2018, the United Nations described U.S. treatment of unhoused people in the Bay Area as a “cruel and inhuman” “human rights violation” (Business Insider). The United States is the only country to ever use nuclear weapons, intentionally murdering around 200,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The subsequent 70 years of international relations and law have in large part been constructed to ensure that such a horrifying crime against humanity is never repeated.
Nobody was ever held responsible for the act. Those responsible are considered heroes by the U.S. regime.
Consider: How were you taught to think about those responsible for events like the bombing of Japan or the invasions of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya? What people or institutions have been held accountable for such acts? Is the U.S. government protecting or violating the human rights of BIPOC, LGBTQ+, undocumented, and/or unhoused residents today?
Definition: Clandestine law enforcement tasked with maintaining social control, such as the KGB or Gestapo (Britannica).
Unless: It’s the FBI. “Secret police” evokes images of totalitarian governments, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation is a secret law enforcement agency tasked with ensuring domestic security. The FBI was founded to suppress political dissent, specifically political anarchism in the immigrant labor movement (FBI). Since 2010 alone, it’s conducted clandestine surveillance operations against “black activists and Muslim Americans, Palestinian solidarity and peace activists, Abolish ICE protesters, Occupy Wall Street, environmentalists, Cuba and Iran normalization proponents, and protesters at the Republican National Convention” (The Intercept).
Donate to bail funds so incarcerated protestors and others can go home to their communities.
- Discussions of political or social issues commonly include loaded language that inhibits clear conversation.
- Politically-charged terms reinforce prejudices that support the interests of powerful institutions.
- We don’t have to use loaded language to clearly describe positive or negative actions, practices, policies, or institutions.