Lexical Warfare

What an amazing phrase: “lexical warfare.” But what the heck is it? According to Peter Ludlow, writing for the New York Times in this amazing piece, it is:

a phrase that I like to use for battles over how a term is to be understood.

(As cool as the phrase is, the article is better, definitely worth a few minutes read.)

I found this article interesting not so much because it got into the story of the too-soon death of internet pioneer Aaron Swartz, but because it got into the language around his life and death. I’ve found that as one moves to the edges of life, what things are called are exceptionally important. For example, the terms that we use to define extraordinary circumstances can position that circumstance or idea for success or failure. Much like the NASA arsenic-based life announcement, what we choose to call something shapes how it is viewed. That particular announcement was doomed to failure because it took something nearly alien and called it alien. Failure to live up to the primary billing brought forth heaps of criticism, even if it was still an amazing discovery.

Sometimes, though, the etymology of a word isn’t about respect or reputation, but about something much greater. It can alter the very definition of how we’re perceived. Take, for example, Dr. Ludlow’s story about Mr. Swartz. He was dubbed with the mantle of “hacktivist.” I know many people who embrace that term and feel that it’s not just an accurate representation of themselves, but something that more should aspire to. Others, as noted in the article, feel the term is best described with the negative connotations of the first half of the Frankensteinian word: hacker. Mr. Swartz, as much as he embraced the hacktivist lifestyle, was dogged by its negative connotations.

When we push messaging about particularly edgy topics, like how safe something is, or what audiences our intervention needs to be taken up by, small choices in words can make a huge difference in perception. Think of this example: Lance Armstrong, when he spoke with Oprah about doping allegations, did he tearfully confess, or did he finally confess? In terms of the words, the difference is minor, but the difference in how each statement is perceived couldn’t be larger.

What does this mean for us? Plenty. In a time when the success or failure of what we do is dependent upon how the words spoken or written about our actions are perceived (indeed, that’s the tagline for this blog), it is incumbent upon us to take those words seriously. The role of communicator (whether it be crisis, risk or public relations) cannot be minimized. It can no longer be the last position filled, or the one de-prioritized every budget cycle. Sure, anyone can do these jobs; hell, there’s even checklists for communications anymore. But it takes a true artist to notice a reporter or social media critic putting a tiny word into a story to be able and understand that while that single word means little, once it’s spoken aloud, it could change the perception of your agency forever.

Dr. Ludlow puts it simply:

Our responsibility in this particular episode of lexical warfare is to be critical and aware of the public uses of language, and to be alert to what is at stake — whether the claims made by the infosecurity industry or the government, or the gestures by the hacktivists, are genuine, misleading or correct. We are not passive observers in this dispute. The meaning of words is determined by those of us who use language, and it has consequences. Whether or not Aaron Swartz suffered because of the manipulation of the public discourse surrounding hacking, his case is a reminder that it is important that we be attuned to attempts to change the meanings of words in consequential ways. It is important because we are the ones who will decide who will win.