What’s in a name? That which we call a protest

A preschool playground is a rough place. The kid who doesn’t like you pushes you down, puts sand in your hair, and calls you a”poopface.” Maybe you respond by calling him a “butthead,” or perhaps you are more mature and simply walk away.

Most people learn to outgrow insulting others, or at least learn to be more articulate with their name-calling. However, there will always be those that never fully leave who playground phase.

Take for instance, the World Can’t Wait protest group that uses the slogan “APEC Sucks.” The group strictly opposes all that is APEC. While arguments can be made both for and against APEC, and both sides have the right to express their views, is the slogan “APECSucks” really the best choice for a group that hopes to foster “intellectual debate,” as previously stated by one of its leaders?

The ethics of civility in public discourse have been long debated. Where freedom of speech ends and unethical discourse begins is a blurry line, with little to no legal precedent. Guy and Heidi Burgess, co-directors of the Conflict Research Consortium at the University of Colorado, have tried to clarify the meaning of civility. They claim that a common mistake many make is forgetting “that other thoughtful and caring people have very different views on how best to address their community’s many complex problems.” In their article “The Meaning of Civility,” they explain that people tend to wrongly assume the interests and positions of their opposition, leading to heated emotional arguments rather than intellectual, fact-based arguments.

According to a study by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, incivility is defined as “attacks that go beyond facts and differences, and move instead towards name-calling, contempt and derision of the opposition. They may include claims that are inflammatory and superfluous and strong, pointed language.”

“APEC Sucks” clearly detracts from the group’s objective of intellectual debate with its purposely derisive slogan. But what does it mean to “suck”? With this fellatio reference, are the organizers hoping to recruit desperate men, who will only later be disappointed to learn that APEC is not, in fact, a woman? No, by using this slogan, the group likely hopes to attract new supporters through its deliberate use of sensationalism. Those who may know little to nothing aboutAPEC are instantly told that it “sucks.” Is there not more to be said about a 20-year-old economic forum spanning 21 economies?

It’s also likely that the name serves to alienate those who would otherwise be genuinely interested in intellectual debate.

“‘APEC Sucks’ is attention-getting, but I am not sure it gets quite the attention that the critics of APEC want,” commented Peter H. Hoffenberg, an associate professor of history at UH Mānoa. “I suppose that if they follow up with a less MTV-esque presentation of the real and potential damage, or costs, of APEC policies, they could hold people’s attention. It is, thus, both offensive and effective, but to grab, not hold attention.”

When asked about the origin of the slogan, group member Nandita Sharma replied that she “did not choose the name and [she is] not sure why it was chosen. But it is clear that APEC does indeed ‘suck’ the labor of people and the resources of the land.”

An organization, especially with campus roots, should be expected to carry a mature, respectful slogan – even if it is a protest organization. These organizations still reflect the university and should be held to the high standards all others are held to in terms of civil public discourse. It’s the difference between an “Occupy Wall Street” and a “F— Wall Street” campaign. Which of the two do you think would garner more sincere attention from the common public? An immature, obscene slogan only serves to diminish the goals an organization hopes to accomplish.

Tom Kelleher, chair of the School of Communications at the University of Hawai‘i, stated in a phone interview that”APEC Sucks might draw the attention of the undecided to the bigger issues and cause them to want to learn more.”Kelleher continued to explain the drawback to this type of strategy. “But there’s a risk; that isn’t going to create any intelligent debate at all with those that are pro-APEC.”

There are many slogans besides “APEC Sucks”that could have been chosen that are not blatantly offensive. However, if the group is stubborn in sticking with their current theme, I will take it upon myself to suggest a few alternatives. As you’ll see, they are not far from the mood of the current slogan. Perhaps “APEC has Cooties” or “APECEats Boogers” will get the message across. “APEC and WTO Sitting In a Tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G” can be used to protest both organizations at once. But maybe those wouldn’t work. In that case, I’d have to dig deep, pull out the big guns and suggest to you “APEC Plays Ball Like a Girl.”

Read the Ka Leo version here.

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