Slogans can get in the way

Movements are known by their slogans. Black lives matter, blue lives matter, defund the police, #MeToo, gun control, the 99%, pro-life, pro-choice, Stop the Steal.

Slogans have a lifecycle. At first, they serve as a way to propel a movement forward and gather people together to a common cause. They serve as a rallying cry. Protests coalesce around slogans. At a cause’s early stages, without a slogan, the cause doesn’t have center. At an early stage, something someone says or write catches fire and people come together over the cause, rallying around a short phrase. No one ever rallied around a paragraph.

Because slogans are simplified — they wouldn’t be slogans if they weren’t — they can’t capture the nuances of the issue. We humans seem to have an innate desire to want things to be simple. It does make things easier to remember. But tough issues are complicated. Part of why people don’t agree is precisely because we try to simplify complicated issues. Another part is that movements aren’t great at developing slogans.

Having been in the advertising world, I can attest to the fact that short, pithy sayings are useful and important. In that world, we would spend weeks developing that phrase, trying to understand what each communicated well and what its shortcomings were. We agonized over each one. I doubt that any movement spends that amount of effort developing their slogan and trying to anticipate the problems with any particular slogan.

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Frank Bruni captured the Achilles’ heel of slogans in an opinion piece about gun violence in the NY Times. He talks about how it creates a push back among its opponents that is counterproductive. He confessed to having used the phrase “gun control” in a recent column and promised to not use it again. He notes that the Brady campaign has removed that phrase from their name and now focuses on a message of reducing gun violence. The Brady organization has given lots of thought to what they could say that could reduce opposition and clarify their message.

So, even though slogans are useful at first for coalescing a movement, later they get in the way. As the movement grows and starts to collect more and more people and get more attention, it starts to have opposition.  So, then people take sides. The opposition uses the lack of nuance of the slogan as a weapon, and the unintended messages that it evokes to attack it. 

In a lively discussion in a question and answer period after one of my presentations, one of the participants came to an epiphany: Slogans can get in the way, especially in our one-on-one discussions. If we want to mend our fractured relationships, we can’t rely on slogans.

So how does this relate to the model for conflict I’ve been discussing? You can use the model to defuse the conflict if someone brings up a slogan.

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Ask: Ask what bothers them about the slogan.  

Listen: Listen for the protest of the lack of nuance. And then ask, What exceptions do you think are important?

Affirm: Agree with the lack of nuance and that the exceptions are real. Life is complicated, after all.

Reframe or Respond: Use what you know to develop a response.  If you’ve read my book, you’ll know how to reframe using a value that’s important to them. Also, the example I cited of how someone did this for the Black Lives Matter slogan may be a useful guide. If you missed that newsletter, click here.