The Journal Gazette
Thursday, January 14, 2021 1:00 am

Words - and actions

Descriptive choices shape historical narratives

Leonard Williams

The events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 have overwhelmed many of us.

Whenever such disturbances happen, it usually takes days for our hearts and minds to process them, to make sense of them. We need to have a good think, give things time to sink in. Understanding such events is not a solitary practice, though.

We read newspapers, watch television, monitor social media feeds, and talk with friends and family. We pay attention to the words and pictures journalists offer. We take cues from politicians, pundits and opinion leaders of all kinds – not only from those who side with us, but also from those on the other side. We state news and opinions in everyday conversation. We express ourselves by sharing ideas and memes on social media. The meaning of any event is a socially constructed meaning.

As a lifelong student of American politics and political ideologies, this observation is not new to me.

In times such as these, I am often reminded of the work of Julia Azari, a political scientist, who has noted that election mandates should not be seen as objective facts. Rather, they are asserted, claimed by one faction or another; indeed, as political narratives, they are constructed over time.

Similarly, AK Thompson, a social theorist, has understood protests and confrontations with police as representational events. Continually interpreted and reinterpreted, they often appear as “semiotic street fights.” The Capitol riot – with its elements of protest, invasion, vandalism and bodily harm – has much the same character. Indeed, the words we use to frame an event – before, during, and after – tell the story well.

President Donald Trump's tweets and publicized statements are a logical place to begin when thinking about Jan. 6. For months during the 2020 campaign, he claimed the election would be rigged, that he could never lose and that he would never concede. Alleging significant election irregularities and massive fraud, the president and his supporters never produced any viable evidence that would prove the case to state election officials or to state and federal judges.

Despite such failures, there were continued assertions that somehow the wrong would be righted. The president tweeted this in December: “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” (This seems quite ominous in retrospect, but he had hyped other rallies as being “wild.”) 

He continued to give his political base false hope by making such dubious claims as “Many States want to decertify the mistake they made in certifying incorrect & even fraudulent numbers in a process NOT approved by their State Legislatures (which it must be). [Vice President] Mike [Pence] can send it back!” Constitutionally, “sending it back” could not and therefore did not happen, and the president criticized Pence for lacking the “courage” Trump supporters were assembled to buttress.

They would do so, at the president's urging, by marching to the Capitol to fight to “stop the steal.” By day's end, the president noted that the riotous scene at the Capitol reflected “the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

In short, the events at the Capitol were not disruptions of a constitutional ritual, challenges to congressional authority or assaults on democracy itself. For Trump, they were authentic expressions of the voice of the people, nothing but a skirmish in a great patriotic war.

Political scientists and communication scholars have long been aware that people are sensitive to the rhetorical and emotive cues opinion leaders send. We should not be surprised that participants and observers alike struggled with the language to use in describing the events at the Capitol.

Consider some of the concepts invoked, some of the labels employed: Protest or coup. Insurrection or sedition. Vandalism or riot. Patriots or terrorists.

The social and political process we are undergoing is not just about finding the right words to describe the event, however. It is about constructing the event itself, about manufacturing the narratives that give it meaning.

We choose words just as much as we choose sides. The story we tell ourselves now will shape what we do, both individually and collectively, in the months and years to come. 

Leonard Williams is professor emeritus of political science at Manchester University.


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