Yesterday, Senator Kamala Harris was shushed on the Senate floor while asking questions in an investigation. She was reminded by Senator Richard Burr to show “courtesy” when questioning people.
“Courage, Not Courtesy.”
Senator Harris announced her new slogan on Facebook. She follows the lead of other female politicians who turned berating reprimands into empowering slogans. While critics may see these moves as a political attempt to capitalize on a catch phrase, these slogans have a far deeper impact on social change.
Taking back power— re-appropriation of phrases
These slogans help women take back power over the very scenarios that seek to disenfranchise them. When women are reminded their place in society through reprimands and dis-empowering statements, the very re-appropriation of these statements helps women reshape the narrative.
True, these slogans have the potential of reaping huge political capital. Everyone loves a good catch phrase. But “Courage Not Courtesy” does a lot more than just add to Sen. Harris’ political steam engine.
Earlier this year, Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the Senate floor when she attempted to raise issue with the nomination of Jeff Sessions. In his rebuke, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said:
She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Unbeknownst to Sen. McConnell at the time, his very reprimand would serve to become a battle cry for women across America.
Similarly, when Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” in a 2016 Presidential debate, the words became a viral slogan in her campaign.
History has shown us the power of words over societies and the use of words to marginalize a population. The n-word is classic example of this and its use among many African Americans, albeit controversial, stems from the attempt to take control over a word once meant to berate them.
Nowhere is this re-appropriation of language becoming more apparent than in the neo-feminist movement. When women use words like “Nasty Girl” in slogans, they’re essentially saying “yes, I will speak out and you can’t put me back in your norm by putting a label on me.” By calling Clinton a “Nasty Woman,” Trump was telling her to know her place— and that if she spoke up or spoke out to a man (him, in this case), he would attribute a very unbecoming and unfeminine label to her.
But Clinton fought back by unapologetically reclaiming the insult and making it a mantra of power.
Words, and more importantly, the recycling of phrases to redefine them, is an effective tool for social change.
According to U.C. Riverside Associate Professor of Political Science, Farah Godrej, the redefinition of disparaging phrases can actually create counter-narratives:
So in the end, by taking control over a term that has been used against oneself and one’s group, one takes greater control over one’s self-image, self-conception, or self-understanding, and limits the ability of others to categorize oneself or one’s group in a totalizing way.
In short, by re-using these phrases, Senators Harris and Warren are saying sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
Disney says it best in the live action Cinderella:
Names have power, like magic spells.
The truth is, however, that words hurt. Words have the power to shape the way that society views a group. They have the power to make people cry. They have the power to make people laugh.
And they have the power to rally people into action and ignite the political base.