Capitol attack highlights importance of terminology


The past year has felt straight out of a history textbook. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the hypervisibility of centuries-old racism to the turbulent Trump-Biden transition, the decade’s early crises have exposed America’s fragility, rendering the ever-idealized return to pre-pandemic “normalcy” impossible.

Despite the craziness, our current language dictates what that textbook chapter will say. Whether in casual conversation or published journalism, it is our responsibility to use our platforms — no matter how small — to identify and disseminate the appropriate terminology. 

The terminology we use influences how we respond and to whom we assign culpability. Moreover, without the correct terminology, it is impossible to accurately portray the facts of an event to those who did not witness it. The select few who experienced an event must be empowered with correct terminology to depict the event; without the right words, the general public will be left in the dark or misinformed.

In a country where one’s likelihood to vote Democratic or Republican is determined in part by the news sources they engage with, common language when describing an event; a shared understanding and vernacular is the first stepping stone in bridging the chasm between Americans on opposite sides of the political aisle, and using common terminology founded upon facts is a necessary beginning to conversation. From there, each can make their own conclusions, but the understanding of the same truth is critical.

On Jan. 6, following an inflammatory speech from then-President Donald Trump, thousands of individuals marched to the U.S. Capitol. The event itself and, more so, the resultant media coverage, highlighted the opposing realities Americans inhabit.     

An estimated 800 entered the Capitol, disrupting Congress’s constitutionally mandated certification of then-president-elect Joe Biden’s victory. That much we can agree on. 

Most, faced with the reality that the individuals violently broke into the Capitol, understand that the event was a striking display of bigotry and white supremacy. A minority of the population, however, retains the notion that those who broke into the Capitol had the intent to protect democracy against election fraud. Beyond the most basic facts, two or more entirely separate narratives were painted to cover the events of Jan. 6, immediately dividing along party lines. 

On Jan. 7, teachers were encouraged to devote class time to processing these events with their students. Labeling the event with terms ranging from a “break-in” to “sedition,” teachers and students sought to define the tragedy and its implications in an effort to make sense of the seemingly unfathomable. 

Among the most common terms were insurrection and coup, but these fail to address the systemic white supremacy at the root of the attack. Both terms are defined by a violent uprising against an established authority. Proponents of the terms argue that insurrection and coup lack political bias, arguing that the event was in fact a group of people going against the government body.

“Coup” and “insurrection,” however, do not address the fact that elected officials — theoretically symbols of democracy — like Trump, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Texas Senator Ted Cruz were actively complicit in the attack, urging rioters to disrupt democracy.

Further, these terms imply that the white supremacy displayed by those responsible for the attack would fundamentally change American government, ignoring that white supremacy and systemic racism are intrinsic to past and current American systems.

Others classify the event as terrorism. Employing the term “terrorism” benefically draws public attention to the fact that terrorism often comes from within the U.S. and is inflicted by Americans, challenging the common misconception that terrorism solely originates from abroad. Some, however, label it domestic terrorism, implying that the base term — terrorism — is by default foreign. By modifying it with domestic, one suggests that such acts of terrorism are somehow different if committed by domestic actors. 

Standardized terminology is necessary for understanding how different events compare. Some equate the Capitol attack and BLM demonstrations, diminishing the Black experience by ignoring key differences such as police complicity in the Capitol attacks and the excessive use of police force at BLM demonstrations. 

There may be times where the correct terminology is misinterpreted or yet to be identified, but by engaging in these conversations, we’ll ultimately glean richer understandings of both the terms themselves and other viewpoints.

We’re living history, and each day brings new pivotal moments. Now, more than ever, it’s our responsibility to define and apply proper terminology, for our language shapes the future.