“Shifting how we think about language and how we use it,” wrote bell hooks, “necessarily alters how we know what we know” (NLO). A speech or slogan might inspire solidarity, indifference, resistance, or hate. Language might be coded as authoritative or uneducated, though the meaning remains the same. Even single words can covertly impart bias, impeding clear communication about issues of social importance to the benefit of those already in power. Today, we continue investigating the insidious loaded language that corrupts public discourse. A political system that can only justify itself through politically-charged terms cannot be described as truly open and free.
See part one of the ARD Loaded Language ABCs here.
• Practice media literacy to identify loaded language and politically-charged terms in common political discourse.
• Support the community organizations linked below each definition whose struggles are minimized by misusing politically-charged terms.
Means: An authoritarian government is characterized by “demanding that people obey completely and refusing to allow them freedom to act as they wish” (Cambridge). In U.S. political discourse, authoritarian countries like Venezuela or China are used to highlight the positive aspects of U.S.-style representative democracy, which guarantees civil liberties like the right to an impartial trial (ThoughtCo).
Unless: You’re actually facing criminal charges, in which case there’s a 90% chance you’ll be pressured into a plea deal instead of defending yourself in a court of law. That means the government simply decides what your punishment will be. “The outcome,” said one judge, “is very largely determined by the prosecutor alone” (The Marshall Project). If those are felony charges, you’re instantly deprived of the right to vote, leaving you with objectively less political voice than citizens of one-party states (Britannica).
Means: Centers for the indefinite detention of political dissidents or ethnic minorities. Unlike prisons, concentration camps don’t hold people convicted of crimes. Though the first concentration camps were built by the British in South Africa, they’re commonly associated with Nazi Germany, which built concentration camps like Dachau alongside extermination camps like Auschwitz (Holocaust Memorial Museum, Britannica).
Unless: They’re run by the U.S. Of the dozens of prisoners who remain at the Guantánamo Bay detention center, most have never been charged with a crime (Newsweek, CBS). They continue to be held indefinitely, in violation of international law, after being subjected to years of sexual assault, prolonged freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, and beatings (Georgetown). The U.S. government also imprisons asylum seekers indefinitely with no obligation to consider their release. While 20,000 Ukrainians were legally admitted into the U.S. in April alone (CBS), over 32,000 mostly non-white people are trapped in ICE detention facilities with almost no legal rights, despite not being charged with a crime (PPI). And the U.S. government concentrated Japanese Americans in camps at the same time as Roma, Jewish, gay, and disabled people were sent to concentration (and then extermination) camps in Germany (History). The massive facilities where the U.S. imprisons populations of people of color without charges for arbitrary periods of time are never called concentration camps.
Means: A sudden increase in crime (Cambridge). Elites typically use fears of rising crime to unleash systematic violence against marginalized communities. One of President Nixon’s advisors reported that the War on Drugs, nominally sparked by a drug-related crime wave, was a conscious attempt to criminalize Black people and the anti-war movement. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,” he said (Unharm).
Unless: The criminal is your boss. The most widespread form of theft in the United States totals millions of dollars each week. It’s wage theft — where workers are forced to work off the clock, denied legally-mandated overtime, paid less than minimum wage, or otherwise robbed of their paychecks — and it’s committed against a majority of low-wage workers. “A crime wave, indeed,” wage theft goes largely unpunished because, unlike the War on Drugs, those criminalized would not be the poor (Inequality). The crime waves that elected officials cite to militarize police, on the other hand, are largely lies. LAPD warned of a “surge” in property crimes while their very own data showed they were on the decline (NBC). Claims of a “war on police” are similarly false (Newsweek). 62% of Americans thought a crime wave was sweeping the nation last summer (Ipsos), a belief bolstered by sensationalistic reporting on “extraordinary bloodshed” (The Atlantic), giving Biden political cover to suggest cities give COVID relief money to the police (A.P.). Though homicide—which correlates most strongly with wealth inequality, not under-policing (The Guardian)—went up, property crimes and reported sexual assaults actually dropped (The Guardian).
Support the Workers Defense Project, Voz, Centro Humanitario, the Miami Workers Center, or a grassroots organization fighting wage theft near you. Address interpersonal violence by directly redistributing your wealth to poor people and organizing for economic justice instead of endorsing “counterproductive” police militarization.
Definition: Intentionally, illegally killing another person; more severe than the separate crime of manslaughter (Nolo).
Unless: The government kills you. Unlike most countries, and in violation of United Nations guidance, the United States kills prisoners (BBC, U.N.). At least 100 people scheduled to be killed by the government would be proven innocent if new evidence were reviewed (Berkeley Political Review). Though many oppose the death penalty, neither the members of the “execution team,” the prison guards, or the judge giving the order are described as murderers or their accomplices.
“Justifiable” deaths by police are, by definition, not murder: what distinguishes police as an institution is not being labeled murderers after they take human life. The killers of 100,000 Iraqi civilians aren’t considered murderers (Statista). The elites who knowingly cause death through service cuts, police militarization, or abortion bans aren’t, either. The disproportionately-Black families where a father is incarcerated are 40% more likely to be poor (Dallas News, Prison Policy Initiative). The bipartisan engineering of mass incarceration and acceptance of the fact that poverty kills more people than heart attacks in the world’s wealthiest country never result in murder charges (Columbia). When former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summer recommended that the U.S. regime aim make 10% of its residents unemployed for a year, nobody accused him of advocating murder (Yahoo!).
Support Reprieve’s efforts against the death penalty.
Definition: A powerful minority that controls the government. Russian oligarchs grew wealthy by taking over formerly state-owned businesses as the USSR collapsed (MSN). A small, wealthy elite, oligarchs profit from government corruption while controlling political processes behind the scenes.
Unless: They live in Silicon Valley. Since the Department of Defense developed the Internet (Britannica), tech executives have enriched themselves through lucrative secret contracts with the military and law enforcement (NBC). In turn, the tech industry has become one of the dominant factors in determining U.S. policy. Google took over a building the size of the White House a mile away from the Capitol Building to run its multi-million dollar lobbying operation and hired almost two hundred former Obama administration staff. One of their products, Google Earth, was originally funded by In-Q-Tel, a venture capital fund run entirely by the CIA (NPR). Though the Guardian reports that big tech firms got into lobbying to “protect their oligopolies,” famous tech CEOs are never labeled “American oligarchs” (The Guardian).
Support Fight for the Future’s work to hold Big Tech accountable.
• 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.