In almost every public battle, the real fight is never the fight itself. The real fight is the fight over what the fight is about. This means establishing the terms that are used to describe the fight and the terms of victory. Because when you are defining the fight, you are much more likely to win the fight.
For example, in the crisis at the U.S. border with Mexico, there is a widely divergent set of acceptable policy outcomes that flow depending on whether those crossing the border without permission are referred to as “undocumented migrants” or “illegal aliens.” A “border invasion” requires an entirely different approach than a “humanitarian crisis.”
But perhaps more important, even, are the brand names used to define opponents.
In the modern era, Donald Trump has become the master of the “put-down” nickname. No one can think of poor Jeb Bush without thinking of him as “Low-energy Jeb,” and Hillary Clinton will forever be “Crooked Hillary.”
But no one in history seems to have understood this better—or employed it more successfully—than the Roman Emperor Hadrian.
After the Jewish Revolt of 68 to 73 A.D., which included Jerusalem’s destruction, everyone in Rome thought their Jewish problem had been put to rest. Not so, replied the remaining zealots and their descendants. The Bar Kokhba revolt (132–136 A.D.) was similarly unsuccessful, but it managed to infuriate Hadrian.
He resolved to wipe Jews, and Israel, from the map. Literally.
Throughout Roman rule, the region had been known as Judea. Why? Because a thousand years earlier, Israel had split into two kingdoms—one in the north, called Israel, and one in the south (including Jerusalem), called Judah. Over time, that second name became Judea and was synonymous with both the region and the people – “Jew” derives from Judea.
So, Hadrian decided to change the name. He looked back in history and remembered that the hated enemies of Israel from centuries earlier had come from Crete. They were known as the “Sea People” and had established cities in the land of the Jews. Don’t remember “Sea People”? Sure you do; the name is rendered in the Bible as the Philistines.
Hadrian merely Latinized the Hebrew name to “Palastinia.” Henceforth, in the records of Rome and the successor overlords, the region was known as “Palestine.”
But to be clear, there had never been a nation or people who called themselves that name; it was only used in the context of opposing Israel and was first employed after the time of Jesus by an angry pagan emperor.
Hadrian understood that by changing the name he could change the terms of the debate. It would be easier for him to eradicate the Jews from the land if their name was stricken from the land itself.
Naming, framing, and branding are important skills for engaged citizens to both identify and employ.
Most importantly, we must be wary of using the brands and definitions set by our adversaries… And, frankly, we should be more aggressive in framing both opponents and policies in ways that make it easier for our fellow citizens to join effectively in the fight.