Manifest Idiocy, by Gap

OK, “idiocy” may be too strident of a word here, but Gap showed a lack of thoughtfulness, cultural awareness, and intellectual curiosity when it released a T-shirt in October with the phrase “Manifest Destiny” on it.

Most adults vaguely remember the phrase “manifest destiny” from their days of junior high school history classes, myself included. If asked today what it meant, I might recall it had something to do with Americans’ drive in the early 1800s to expand the country’s territory to the Pacific Ocean.

A little research would show, however, that the term has a troubled past. Politicians and settlers used the phrase to claim that America’s westward march was God’s will. As such, it was used to justify the eradication of Native Americans from their lands. The concept of manifest destiny also is fraught with controversy regarding slavery and whether the institution would be permissible in new territories.

Apparently, Mark McNairy, the designer of the T-shirt, didn’t bother to check out manifest destiny’s Wikipedia entry and nor did anyone else at Gap. When the retailer began marketing the T-shirt, it didn’t take long for criticism to metastasize. Gap quickly withdrew the item from its stores, and McNairy issued a apology. In it he wrote, “I intended for [the T-shirt] to mean that one could set goals, work hard, and achieve their dreams.”

To be sure, the phrase “manifest destiny” sounds vaguely inspirational as long as you don’t dig into its origins or meaning. This error reminds me of when Sarah Palin once used the term “blood libel” to shoot back at her critics. Apparently, she thought the term sounded aggressive and dramatic and most likely didn’t realize the anti-Semitic history behind it. “Blood libel” backfired on her.

In our chattering culture, countless phrases float around and alight on our brains. Even though these words flutter around, they sometimes have weight. They can carry heavy cultural baggage. So, when a business communicates with the public, carelessly chosen words can cause embarrassment and waste money, as happened with Gap. On the other hand, well-chosen language speaks to clients and customers and can boost sales or achieve other goals. Words are a double-edged sword to be wielded wisely.