Lexicon Valley

Sit Down. “Standing With” Some Important Cause Doesn’t Make You a Hero.

A line of politicians nobly stand with each other on Sept. 16, 2015, before a GOP debate. 

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Though we tend to interact with it while seated, the Internet abounds with exhortations to stand. Last year gave us the prominent hashtag campaigns #StandwithPP and #IStandWithAhmed (for Planned Parenthood and Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year-old Texan clockmaker, respectively), as well as the not-so-prominent political campaign Stand With Rand (for the Kentucky senator). You can “Stand With SUNY,” if you believe the New York public university needs more funding; Zionists can choose between StandWithUs.com and istandwithisrael.com; and if you were inspired by Budweiser’s anti–drunk driving Super Bowl commercial, you can head over to the “Stand With Bud” website.

It’s easy to see why saying “I stand with” has become such a popular way to express agreement or solidarity. To begin with, it sounds a lot more dynamic than just saying we “agree” with someone. At the core of American self-mythology is the idea that we’re especially brave—it’s in our national anthem—and “stand with” has a distinctly martial connotation. It evokes protesters linking arms in the face of police dogs, or soldiers steeling themselves against the approaching enemy. (Think Custer’s Last Stand.) When someone says “I stand with so-and-so,” it’s as if concluding a sentence that began, “When the battle lines are drawn…”

There is, in fact, a whole family of tough-talking phrases featuring stand, a remarkably versatile verb. You can stand up to a bully, stand up for your rights, stand and be counted. You can stand your ground, infamously, in Florida, among other states. Stand might seem an odd vehicle for projecting bold action—standing isn’t all that active—but what these clichés share is a sense of bravery defined in contrast to surrender. Standing is courageous when it’s the opposite of running away.

Stephen Colbert memorably played with the flexibility of stand, and its association with empty bravado, at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, when he said of President George W. Bush: “I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”

What makes “stand with,” in particular, so perfect for both online activism and viral marketing is its profound vagueness. As a command, it can mean “donate,” as in the “Stand With Bernie” contribution page on the Sanders campaign site, or simply “sign a petition.” As a declaration, it doesn’t mean much of anything. If you say you’re taking a stand, people might expect you to actually do something; “Stand with” stops short of any commitment. Last month, Jeb Bush wrote an op-ed for Fox News applauding the March for Life, an anti-abortion rally in Washington, D.C, in which he concluded, “I am proud to stand with them.” His point was that he supports policies restricting abortion rights. But this was a rally; there were people literally standing, and he was literally not standing with them.

Users of “stand with” seem to want the phrase to be what linguists call a performative utterance: Something that, just by being said, creates an actual change in social reality. (Classic example: saying “I do” at the altar.) In its first episode after the Paris terrorist attacks in November, Saturday Night Live opened with cast member Cecily Strong reciting an earnest monologue that concluded, “Our love and support is with everyone there tonight. We stand with you.” Some news sites, including Slate, covered the monologue with some version of the headline, “Watch SNL Stand With Paris.” This nicely captured the performative aspiration, implying that the action referred to in the sentence “we stand with you” is the very act of saying that sentence—that standing with Paris and saying “we stand with Paris” are one and the same.

Strong’s short speech was heartfelt, and saying “we stand with you” is clearly meant to convey empathy, which is admirable. But it also implies some kind of shared sacrifice, and to that extent, it’s self-aggrandizing bullshit. If the phrase is performative, it’s in the everyday sense of the word: play-acting the role of hero while expressing the least controversial position imaginable. (A post on the Alabama news site Al.com: “We Stand With Paris. Now It’s Time to Stomp Out ISIS.”) The audience is only superficially whomever we’re “standing” with; mainly, it’s ourselves. How many Parisians watch SNL? How many of the Facebook friends who saw your French flag profile picture (a close cousin of “I stand with Paris”) are French?

Of course, it’s essential for humans to express solidarity with each other, and a little rhetorical excess isn’t the end of the world. Certainly the “I stand with Ahmed” movement had heartwarming results; Mohamed wouldn’t have been invited to the White House and offered an internship with Twitter without the wave of popular support.

But how we speak matters. The urge to deny the powerlessness we feel in the face of world events is understandable, but there’s a gap between words and actions that we’re better off not obscuring with wishful slogans—as when politicians declare that they’re “sending thoughts and prayers” to victims of gun violence while opposing gun-control legislation.

All clichés take the place of clear thinking, as George Orwell warned, and “stand with” is especially reductive. At its worst, it suggests that the solution to solving complex problems is simply having the courage to pick the right team. It should be no surprise that some people really like to say they stand with Israel, turning one of the most intractable dilemmas in history into a game of with-us-or-against us. Marco Rubio’s campaign site declares  that “President Obama Has Failed to Stand With Israel”; Jeb Bush affirms the importance of “standing with the brave, democratic State of Israel”; and Ted Cruz has an entire “Stand With Israel” page, featuring a picture of him in conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu. The implication, of course, is that if you disagree with Netanyahu’s reactionary policies, you must not stand with Israel. (Cruz actually has two “stand with” pages—one dedicated to Israel, the other to Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who went to jail for refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples—which perhaps says everything you need to know about the phrase’s undertone of braggadocious nonsense.)

Cecily Strong delivered her SNL monologue twice: once in English and once in French. But “we stand with you” doesn’t translate into French, which lacks a direct counterpart for “to stand.” Instead, Strong concluded, “Nous sommes de tout coeur avec vous”—literally, “we are whole-heartedly with you,” and about equivalent to “our hearts go out to you.” That’s a little less exciting than the English version, and a little more honest.