Protestors or Rebels: How the Label Changes Our Perception of Libya

Friday, March 04, 2011


This week, in press accounts of the protests in Libya, "protestors" suddenly became "rebels." Why? And, how does the word “rebel” change the way readers perceive the conflict there? Foreign Policy Managing Editor Blake Hounshell and New York Times Foreign Editor Susan Chira explain when to start labeling a protester a rebel.

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Comments [11]

nelms Graham from Waynesboro,Ga.

Well the term Rebels was certaintly the term the British used in speaking of our revolutionary founders, also the term used by the north against the South. Its all a matter of perspective. Where I'm from Old Abe is still referred to as the Great Tyrant. Remember history is written by the victors ,not necessarily the just.

Mar. 19 2011 10:05 AM
Zachary Hinton from Raleigh NC

These "rebels" are simply fighting for freedom. People should never label someone without knowing the full story/details.

Mar. 13 2011 09:19 PM
Brandon "the GREATEST" Burroughs from NC

even though they are fighting and rebeling they are still figting for freedom and rights. Now as in every group there is always one who's oppinion and mind set are beyond the nessesary but this doesnt sem too much like the case. seeing as they are the ones who have been stricken first they must try to prove a point and i do agree force is nessesary. just not to and extreme level but before force is applied i think the peaceful approach should be taken

Mar. 10 2011 10:58 PM
Dion Twayne Watson from Southside

I would think that “revolutionists” would be a more appropriate term for a people who are now battling for freedom. While there may be some extremists in the mix, I believe the cry is for the people to be able to govern themselves - democracy.

Mar. 10 2011 11:49 AM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Oh, come on! Any American with a Confederate flag or a sense of unresolved historical grievances, say Tea Party fans (can't fairly call them members), intensely identifies with the term "rebel". "Johny Yuma was a rebel, he rode through the West," went the lyric of the title tune to Steve McQueen's original vehicle to success, the television program The Rebel.

As a Lincoln and Union fan, the show caused me some cognitive dissonance but I eventually decided I was really a renegade off the reservation. Of course, Geronimo did his people more harm than good.

Mar. 09 2011 06:10 PM
Jeremy from Salem, IL

I think 'revolutionary' is a better term. You don't think of George Washington and Ben Franklin as rebels do you? The word is as bad as 'civil war' which this clearly is not. If it is called a civil war then no one will want to get involved. I think a great crime against freedom is being committed by not helping the pro-democracy revolutionaries!

Mar. 08 2011 08:24 PM
Vern Crawford from Center Point, Texas

I totally agree with the previous posters. It is an insult to refer to the folks as rebels, who are dodging bullets by a madman dictator, desperately trying to maintain grip on power. Freedom Fighters seems most appropriate!

Mar. 08 2011 12:19 AM
Kim Bailey from Unionville, CT

When I first heard the word 'rebel' to described the citizens of Libya who are rising up against their government, my initial thought/feeling was that the news industry was putting distance between the citizens of Libya and the those who would oppose the Libyan government. That is, it implied that the protestors had become a minority rebelling agains the majority. From the first reporting by major news outlets, NPR and alternative sources like Democracy Now, it seemed evident that the Libyan people as a whole had decided to protest the long, dictatorial rule of Muammar Gaddafi. Protestors seems to me to clearly represent citizens protesting agains something their government is doing.

I believe that I first heard the word 'rebels' used to describe the citizens of Libya opposed to Gaddafi' rule in a speech given by Secretary of State Clinton. It seems to me that it took a day or so to filter through the main news outlets. Shifting the inuendo from citizen protestor to rebel seems to me to identify the object - Gaddafi's regime - as having some legitimacy, some stable center against which others are rebelling. And, perhaps this is exactly what the White House intends. I don't know.

Thank you for raising this point of language useage, of symantics. I have and will recommend today's segment to everyone I can.

Mar. 06 2011 05:50 PM
Richard Bloomquist from Juneau, Alaska

Not wanting to consider how the word you use will be interpreted by listners, in favor of "being more precise" is, I think, irresponsible. What is the point of communicating if you do not care what people hear? As a scientist I chose words and ways of speaking which will be understood by my audience- getting hung up on what is technically the best way to say something can cause you to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They will undersatnd nothing! This conflict is not at all a civil war from my perspective- it is a people's rebeillion. Those fighting for Kadafi have either been bought off, hired, intimidated or lied to. Civil war suggests a an underlying intrinsic separation of the people by idealogy and belief- I do not think we see this here.

Mar. 06 2011 02:25 PM
BobF from Toronto

By calling them rebels you are tacitly asserting the legitimacy of the Libyan government. Rebels are people who have to be defeated by a “legitimate” government, as in the US Civil War.

NPR is currently using rebels, crisis, opposition and even anti-government forces.

It sounds like the media are washing their hands of what happens in Libya — massacre, even genocide.

Why not borrow a hitherto misused term: freedom fighters?

Mar. 05 2011 01:56 PM
Hope from Manassas, VA

I would think that “revolutionists” would be a more appropriate term for a people who are now battling for freedom. While there may be some extremists in the mix, I believe the cry is for the people to be able to govern themselves - democracy.

Mar. 05 2011 12:41 PM

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