The events of Jan. 6 in the Capitol building left an impression on everyone, and recently, the University of New Haven’s honors program held a presentation to discuss it. This presentation sought to start a conversation about why certain words were chosen and the effects of word choice.
In short, the takeaway is that words matter and they have an effect on the community.
The conversation focused on the research of four professors with varying opinions on the events. They used their specialties in English, psychology, political science and criminal justice to bring new perspectives to light. These professors were Margaret Savilonis, Alexandria Guzmán, Chris Haynes and Mike Lawlor, respectively.
Savilonis discussed language as a power structure, and how to find the appropriate word choice. She also discussed the responsibility of language and that “complacency leads to bad places.” This responsibility often falls in the hands of media companies and people in authoritative positions, which Haynes discussed. Haynes, with a background in political science, focused on framing, a tactic used by leaders to shape the way an issue is perceived.
Haynes said that news sources “place emphasis on different stories, words and pictures and affect the viewer’s understanding.” These framing effects, according to Haynes, diffuse over time much like memories of the event do.
Guzmán, with a psychology background, focused on how word choice shapes memories and emotions. She said that “emotions set quickly,” so, many people already have processed the event, but these memories can be changed, she said.
Although memories may be shaped and changed over time, the criminal justice system must be concrete in the way this event is dealt with. The use of words like “riot” and “insurrection” attribute to actual crimes that must be prosecuted by police officers. Though Savilonis concluded that there is a spectrum for describing this event where words vary in precision, police officers do not have this flexibility because of the implications of certain words.
Lawlor, the final presenter with a background in criminal justice, discussed these implications. He discussed the purpose of “disaggregating people” because “some people protested, some people rioted, and some people committed insurrection.” Separating the protesters from those who committed crimes is imperative to the criminal justice system so that no innocent lives are charged with crimes, he said.
“Does a name represent an idea?” asked Savilonis.