Thursday, February 11, 2010

The power of language

I'm currently teaching a graduate seminar on the history of social movements in North America. This week, one of the issues we discussed was the power of language, and the ways that members of social movements and those who oppose their objectives have learned how to use key phrases to mobilize public support.

With that in mind, this report from CBS news is highly illustrative of this point. Fully 14% more of Americans surveyed are willing to allow "gays and lesbians" to serve openly in the military than would support "homosexuals" being allowed to do so. It's a difference between a solid majority opinion in support (58% support) and a bare plurality (44% support vs 42% opposed).

Mind you, it's also disappointing that fully such a large percentage of the American population is opposed to gay men and lesbians serving in the military, no matter what they are called. But it does speak strongly to the powerful issue of messaging and the careful use of language. As John Aravosis points out, "homosexual" evokes cold, clinical connotations of disease, while "gays and lesbians" brings to mind living, feeling human beings - which is what we are!

[ETA: Hmmm... that got a bit earnest and treacly at the end. Don't worry - the hard-edged cynicism will return shortly!]

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