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Fighting words: The role of language in protest

Every word you read, even the ones in this article, was constructed with an intended impact in mind.

The human world is built from language. We use language to instruct, empathise, and learn. Perhaps the most impactful domain of language is persuasion. Using words alone, one can change the worldview of another or inspire them to actions they’ve never considered before. We are at once empowered and made vulnerable by language. 

Every linguistic choice a speaker makes is indicative of their worldview. Word choice can indicate opinions: if I eat a sandwich and describe it as ‘tasty’, I likely have a positive opinion of it. Opinions can also be revealed through grammatical choices, such as using the passive voice to disguise the agent of an action (consider ‘the police shot the man’ versus ‘the man was shot’). Consequently, the language we hear, chosen by the person we are listening to, shapes our understanding of the information we are learning. This means that the linguistic choices made by the media, who communicate information to many people at once, have great potential to influence how those people understand the issues they discuss.

To understand the narratives about protest being pushed by the media, I’ve analysed the way three organisations covered the January 26th Change the Date protests: a Sky News bulletin, an ABC News bulletin (both from 2022), and a 2018 article by Teila Watson from the New Matilda. They reflect three approaches to protest coverage respectively: opposition to protest, downplaying dissent, and confrontation.

Although each outlet focused on protests about Invasion Day, each chose to focus on different aspects of those protests and different levels of engagement with the protests’ demands. Sky News’ bulletin did not outline the reason that people were protesting, but focused solely on the fact that people were protesting. This was done by describing protestors as a “noisy minority” and suggesting they “get on with things”. Taking attention away from why protests occur and focusing on the fact there is dissent is strategic: it isolates protestors, makes their cause seem unsympathetic, and makes viewers less likely to engage with the core of their complaints.

ABC News foregrounded issues of Indigenous deaths in custody as the reason people were protesting. It was only the New Matilda, however, that identified the full extent of systemic racism that the protests were intended to engage with. ABC News also had a more positive outlook than Watson’s New Matilda article: while ABC News put emphasis on the “hope” that protestors had for the future, Watson described changing the date as “meaningless” unless greater systemic change was achieved. It seems that ABC News, while happy to engage with the gravity of the protest’s demands, is focused on resolving conflict by downplaying the partisan root of the protest. In contrast, Watson actively identified with protestors, not shying away from anti-government sentiment that may isolate some readers. 

Each outlet also uses specific vocabulary to achieve these different ends. Sky News fearmongered by describing protestors as “controversial” and “divisive”. The descriptors “noisy minority”, “impolite”, and “immature”, were used to undermine the legitimacy of the protests. 

To explore the relationship between language and protest, I spoke to USyd academic Dr Nick Riemer, academic, activist and president of the USyd branch of the NTEU. 

“The mainstream media,” Riemer says, “often doesn’t take protest seriously… Protesters are often seen as irrational, purely reactive, emotional, immature, rather than as representatives of changing winds in society.” In contrast, ABC News and the New Matilda were more sympathetic to the protestors, validating their outrage by describing them as “upset” and “angry”. 

Finally, grammatical choices are also indicative of the outlets’ stance on protest. Sky News relies heavily on the pronouns ‘them’ and ‘us’ as substitutes for the names of protestors or organised movements. This obfuscation of identity serves to place the viewer in opposition to the protestors (‘us’ is inclusive of the viewer, ‘them’ is not) and further delegitimises protest as an organised political movement. Riemer describes how this grammatical anonymisation of campaign organisers creates the impression that protests simply ‘happen’, undermining their political legitimacy. ABC News is also guilty of this; although they rely less on the pronominal schism of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the protest’s organisers are not named, nor are the targets of the complaints. Only Watson’s article names the government as an actor with the power to create the change protestors demand.  

Media outlets may have various incentives for opposing or downplaying dissent, such as fear of isolating viewers, fear of condemnation by an opposition, or ideological disagreement with those protesting. It is also worth noting the intersectional biases that may predispose reporters to be dismissive of protest. Riemer cites class prejudice as a reason that media coverage of grassroots politics, which is more accessible to people without access to a lot of money and resources, is less favourable than ‘official’ politics. Women and BIPOC are often labelled as emotional or overly reactionary when voicing unhappiness with the systems that oppress them. Even media outlets that intend to straddle the fence by downplaying the confronting nature of protest are committing an act of violence against these causes; allowing the majority to remain ‘uninvolved’ comes at the cost of meaningful change for minorities. 

The only media coverage that furthers the purpose of protest is confrontational. It demands its viewers pick a side, and interrogates them on their choice. It does not sweep nuanced criticisms of a broken system under the rug of ‘hope for the future’. It does not coddle its viewers by referring to them as ‘us’ while condemning the ‘them’. It lays out the complaints of protestors, no matter how ugly or hard to swallow, and encourages the audience to pick a side. Notably, this also applies to media that wants to effectively condemn protests. There is a meaningful difference between undermining Invasion Day protests by refusing to engage with their complaints, calling them ‘immature’, and condemning anti-lockdown protests by pointing to the very valid reasons that a COVID lockdown was necessary. If the best criticism of a protest that an outlet can offer is that it is ‘divisive’ and that we “just want to get on with things”, that criticism is not worth listening to. 

There are two major takeaways that should be drawn from this article. The first is the importance of being critical of the media you consume. Every word you read, even the ones in this article, was constructed with an intended impact in mind. Seek media that is not afraid of confrontation and use it to inform your own opinions, especially when discussing something as important as protest.

Secondly, in your own writing and conversation, talk about the protests you support in the way they ought to be talked about. Identify who is demanding change and from whom that change is being demanded. Use words that empower and validate. Frame protest as a legitimate political tool. 

“I emphasise the utility of protest,” Riemer says, “because there’s often suspicion about it.” Language is an incredibly powerful tool, and, in the hands of passionate people, it can be used to change minds and inspire tangible action. Use it wisely. Use it to confront.”