Photo caption: Jack DuVall, ICNC Senior Counselor and Founding Director, presents his session on language and meaning in movements at the 2016 ICNC Summer Institute.

By Kirsten Han, class of 2016

Language is crucial. I wouldn’t be a journalist if I didn’t believe that. Actions might begin and end, but ideas, dreams and beliefs – the intangible that’s prompted by language, be it visual, oral or even symbolic – endure and can be difficult to extinguish.

Movements can be built on language and meaning. During his session at the ICNC Summer Institute Jack Duvall argued the importance of movements to appeal to minds, to empower people to find their own agency and see themselves as part of a cause that appeals to something bigger, even existentially so, in their lives.

It seems obvious that people would struggle harder (and for longer) if a particular cause
FullSizeRender copyspeaks to the core of who they are – as Duvall said, the locus of movements is never actually in physical place, but in hearts and minds. Yet we should never forget that the power of language can also be wielded by repressive/oppressive actors. Hearts and minds can be primed in particular ways, to believe particular things.

My home country of Singapore is an expert at manipulating language to frame the narrative. And it’s everywhere: in the mainstream media, in schools, permeating throughout our day-to-day lives.

A page in a children’s book about Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew outlining one of his governement’s policies for economic growth, including the criminalization of strike action.

From a young age a Singaporean is taught that cause is Singapore’s success, the only answer stability and the trading of individual and political rights for the greater good. Civil resistance and nonviolent actions are framed not as matters of rights and justice, but law, order and security.

When a group of Chinese bus drivers went on strike in 2012, the mainstream media took its cue from the government and repeatedly referred to the action as an “illegal strike”. The action taken by these migrant bus drivers were framed as foreign and “not the Singapore way”, over and over again, turning a small protest over migrant labour rights into an attack on Singaporean stability and way of life.

The ruling party of Singapore, the People’s Action Party, has also often co-opted the language of action – such as referring to their grassroots volunteers as “activists” – to erase power asymmetry and present engagement with opposition parties and civil society as a meeting of equals, rather than the massively skewed game it actually is.

This is what movements often have to deal with: powerful actors who often have louder voices through their ability to control well-established, well-funded institutions that can set the language and narrative of the issue far more easily than activists on the ground.

Changing the language and challenging the narrative thus takes a consistent, sustained effort, both offline and online. It needs to be ongoing, constantly normalising frameworks and vocabulary that oppose or reimagine the concepts hammered in by the establishment.

Building belief and commitment in a movement doesn’t just require learning language. Unlearning the language one has already been fed is important too.

ps. Stay tuned for the video from this session on the ICNC’s website, in the meantime, check out DuVall’s presentation from the 2015 ICNS-SI.