You Can’t Wordsmith Your Way to Justice


“Those impacted.”

“Centering the lived experiences of *insert group here*.”

As co-conspirators in the progressive ecosystem, we share this culture of language, parroting ubiquitous words that—when used persistently over long periods of time—lose their saliency and power. This happens often. 

At DTC, we’ve often found ourselves in meetings with clients, trying to dig out what’s beneath the surface when these buzzwords become the defining terms to describe an organization’s approach and narrative. How do we break out of the practice of utilizing imprecise language? At what point does any kind of language become a barrier to our organizational objectives towards a shared vision of the world we want to live in?

Shared language binds us, unites us towards a common goal, and repetition strengthens messaging across varying sectors. When used adequately, language is an effective means of building power through communications—especially in mass movements. When advocates call for “balancing our tax code”, we’re signaling concrete policy solutions like securing a guaranteed basic income or proposing a wealth tax as a means to level the playing field. The message is clear: our lowest-income residents are still paying the highest share of their income in taxes, while the wealthiest pay the least. Most importantly, we’re working towards policies to rectify it.

Language also obscures as much as it illuminates. Language always runs the risk of abstraction. Words often lose their clarity when co-opted by the opposition. The key is to have the forethought to know language will be hijacked and the adaptability to tweak your language if and when it does. This phenomena is most tricky when it is our friends, our political allies with relative power, and our industry collaborators and troublemakers who don’t stop to consider what gets lost in the word choice. Because if we don’t, the opposition’s motivation and power to undermine our story only gets stronger.

Not for nothing, the jargon we share is useful. It simultaneously conveys and builds a mutual understanding. When I say, “hold space” or “the work” it is a way of both signaling and creating a shared cultural understanding, a fluency in how we are individually oriented and how we might want certain issues addressed. 

Even within this shared language and communal glossary, words hold different meanings for different people—and they’re not dead in the water. Language is like a living organism, whose needs evolve over time and require overhaul to address the needs and contexts of the time. We promise that your influence is only as good as your ability to precisely and uniquely define your ideas.

As consultants, we’re in the business of being precise as we can be accurate. Clarity of ideas are paramount to the communication of ideas and objectives that want to live in the real world. When producing foundational client messaging, we discover that even those of us who work closely with the people we serve have trouble synthesizing who really is behind those “with lived experiences” or the “marginalized” among us. 

We aren’t and shouldn’t be wordsmithing our way to justice. There’s a path for organizations and influencers that will significantly improve the way we wield language for power and produce more equitable outcomes. Dropping the mainstream—and sometimes ineffective—language we rely on to get us to the next idea is one of many sacrifices we need to make in order to convey the impact we desire. 

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