People were apoplectic over the name that Apple had chosen for its highly anticipated new tablet. It was ridiculous! Downright embarrassing! It sounded like some sort of high-tech feminine hygiene product. Imagine the time and effort, not to mention marketing dollars, that went into this "disastrous" decision. There were tweets and blog posts and cartoons devoted to it.
And then the product came out, and people flocked to buy it and quickly adjusted to the name.
And that was that.
Of course, iPads aren't a matter of life and death. Let's consider a different example--something more complex and consequential like healthcare reform.
It's been talked about in different ways in this country for decades, using a variety of monikers: Universal Healthcare, Single-Payer, ACA, Obamacare, Romneycare...
When President Obama was elected, he tried unsuccessfully to pass even more comprehensive reform than the ACA that he eventually signed into law. One of the challenges was how best to talk about such a complex plan in a way that would be widely understood. Of course, opponents were also hard at work coming up with ways to make reform sound scary and even dangerous, hence the introduction of the dreaded "Death Panels."
After the fact, conventional wisdom settled on the idea of calling a proposed single-payer system, "Medicare for All" as a sort of shorthand, even though the proposal was not literally Medicare for everyone. Adjustments would be made to improve it and to make it work on a wider scale, but it would work a lot like Medicare for consumers. So it would surely be much less confusing to understand and talk about!
"Why didn't President Obama just call it Medicare for All?" the pundits queried from the Hindsight Department. So in 2016, pretty much everyone did. And it still scared people. There was all manner of confusion about how on earth the whole country could possibly just go on Medicare, especially if supplemental policies were abolished.
Maybe we should have called it something else? How could we have explained it better?
Photo by Koshu Kunii
Fast forward to May and June of 2020 and an arguably even more dire topic after video of the hideous killing of a handcuffed George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was caught on video and circulated on social media.
More people are finally catching on that #BlackLivesMatter is more than a hashtag to debate and even taking the risk of protesting police brutality on the streets during a global pandemic.
So what's the latest controversial phrase on everyone's lips? Defund the Police.
Does it perfectly encapsulate all we need to do to replace a system so broken that minor reforms around the edges aren't nearly enough? No.
Does it get folks' attention? Yes.
Does it beg for further exploration and conversation? Definitely.
Will opponents spin it to sound like public safety is being abandoned? Of course.
Is it the same phrase we'll all be using 4 months from now? I don't know.
The conversation will continue to evolve, and you can bet the marketing teams of both major parties are already looking at poling and focus groups on the topic as the election draws nigh and considering alternatives. It's just what they do.
Here's what we can do in the meantime:
For now, let's try not to worry about the terminology. Learn what it MEANS. Learn what needs to be DONE. And help others to better understand what has to happen and why. Work for REAL CHANGE in local communities.
Frankly, this isn't a great time for white folks to tell black folks whose very lives are at stake exactly how they should talk about changing that fact. (It's really never a good time for that, by the way.)
Tragically, we have a dangerous president who is horrible at virtually every skill needed to preside over a country and utterly devoid of any quality one might hope for in a world leader. But he's brilliant at deflection, misinformation, and stoking fear and resentment, particularly among his base.
We MUST train ourselves to stay on task. This is especially difficult when the work is hard and distractions are everywhere. It's far easier to argue about semantics.
Please understand that I'm NOT suggesting words or messaging don't matter. They do. That will all get sorted out. But whether you like the slogans or the headlines or the tactics being used or not, let's try to focus on our work and the values they are based on. There's just too much at stake not to.