5 Terms for 2022

4 min readJan 1, 2022

We’ve all seen what the cops do with language. While we can correct the record, and while people haven’t necessarily been sweet about conditions in this country, sometimes even in being harsh we can fail to convey the seriousness of what’s happening by omitting context. For 2022, here are five suggestions.

1. There’s sometimes some debate about replacing the word “homeless”. People like “houseless” or “unsheltered” because those feel less stigmatized and take into account other uses of “home”. But when we have over half a million people out on the street due to policy decisions, trying to survive in makeshift camps or wherever they can, what we’re talking about are “internally displaced people”.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center defines “internally displaced persons” as “Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border”.

Whether or not there’s a gun drawn on you at every point in the process, evictions are situations of armed conflict. It’s only possible to commodify housing through violence and the threat of violence. Every homeless person was put outside through the actions of an armed group enforcing the provisions of a type of investment. Yes, that armed group has the sponsorship of the state. In other countries, many gangs do.

2. “Gang” may not be the word. Sometimes it’s more accurate, and sometimes the subject is literally gangs within police units, but there’s a word that gets a different emotional reaction from the right. Try comparing police to “cartels”.

I like “defund”, this isn’t a suggested replacement. They’re not mutually exclusive. But sometimes something like, “We can’t keep paying police to act like cartels” will really pull a right wing guy up short. It’s a very vivid word for them. So they might start getting defensive about specific things — “Police don’t sell drugs”, “police don’t rob old ladies” and so on, giving you opportunities to show them all types of headlines. Try it some time. “These cartel-like police forces don’t need a public subsidy while they’re committing crimes.”

3. For similar reasons, throw “social” onto anything related to credit scores. It bugs them out, it doesn’t have to mean anything. Call a credit score “social debt surveillance” and that type of thing.

4. Instead of using “police shootings” so often, say “extrajudicial executions”.

You’ll notice with the exception of #3, these aren’t unfamiliar phrases or ideas. We know what extrajudicial executions are, and in other countries that’s what we call them. No matter how seriously someone in America might take these police murders, “extrajudicial execution” is a phrase they’re unlikely to reach for if the shooting happened in the US. We know mass incarceration is bad, but we’re still unlikely to compare our prisons to gulags and so on. We know homelessness is bad, but we can’t recognize a refugee camp in front of our own eyes. In 2022, let’s try and change that and have a little more clarity about our context.

5. The last one is different. This is an idea we engage with which has no phrase.

“Gunpoint debt” is descriptive. I mean debts enforced at gunpoint. Calling it “gunpoint debt” would be straightforward, but it might be confusing at first if someone hasn’t heard it and there might be something that sounds better.

In America, we have a cultural understanding that certain types of debt drive people to commit crimes. It’s common to talk about loan sharks or drug dealers being terrible villains, in part, because they compel other people (gamblers, drug addicts) to go out and do bad things for money.

These debts function this way because they:

A) Come with strict deadlines, probably short term.

B) Are enforced by direct violence. There’s no collections agency to ignore, no discharging in bankruptcy. Somebody shows up physically, to your door, with a gun. And

C) Leverage the needs of desperate people who don’t necessarily have the income for better options.

As you can see, there’s one type of debt that fits this description which we don’t normally, in our American cultural understanding, associate with criminal coercion. That’s rent.

A term that describes this type of debt, which is distinguished by being enforced at the point of a gun, creates a semantic category inclusive of landlords and mob protection. I hope you can think of something catchier to call it.

Other people already advocate some of these terms. They’re simple clarifications of context that have an emotional impact on bureaucrats and voters on the right. They reframe the discussion in a way that makes action much harder to avoid and human rights violations much harder to ignore.

We don’t have to let police define themselves as domestic and legitimate when we have familiar terms that make the seriousness of their activities internationally undeniable. Likewise, if we can put words to something that we already understand, such as a dangerous category of debt, we can make new and ideologically broad cases for specific change.