The Power of Words


We have been seeing a lot of editorializing about political talk lately, most of it scolding the left for letting the right speak to the heart, not the mind. The argument here is that conventional understanding of rationality, the way the left argues, is not correct. Rationality, the new theory goes, evolved as a means to prevail in argumentation, not to discover the truth. I think there is a lot of guidance here that the left should heed in order to level the playing field. The level will be much lower than that of an old fashioned “rational” debate, but the outcome will not be so distorted.

The language being used today has a deeper potential impact on politics and on the way our society fares. In a very thoughtful op-ed piece in the New York Times, two Yale faculty point out that the language describing our current situation has shifted from that used in past similar circumstances.

In the face of nothing but bad economic news, Americans often take heart in remembering that we have been here before — during the Great Depression, when conditions were far worse than they are today — and we survived.

But there is a crucial difference between then and now: the words that our political leaders use to talk about our problems have changed. Where politicians once drew on a morally resonant language of people, family and shared social concern, they now deploy the cold technical idiom of budgetary accounting.

“Language is the house of being,” wrote Martin Heidegger. What he meant was that the world that shows up for people depends on the language they have to convert the meaningless sense data impinging on the body into a meaningful picture of the current scene. The language being used determines the context of subsequent actions. Schön and Rein, fellow MIT faculty, in their book, Frame Reflections, make the same case. They point to the difference that two phrases, slum clearance and urban renewal, used to describe the same city scene will lead to different frames for the argument, different stakeholders, and different ultimate outcomes. The op-ed piece compares the language used currently with that of 1934 with the depression going full tilt.

Roosevelt challenged Congress to place “the security of the men, women and children of the nation first. . . . Americans want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours.”

In contrast, Marmor and Mashaw, the authors of the oped piece note that the context and substance of the conversation has lost the presence of people. They write:

In 1934, the focus was on people, family security and the risks to family economic well-being that we all share. Today, the people have disappeared. The conversation is now about the federal budget, not about the real economy in which real people live. If a moral concept plays a role in today’s debates, it is only the stern proselytizing of forcing the government to live within its means. If the effect of government policy on average people is discussed, it is only as providing incentives for the sick to economize on medical costs and for the already strapped worker to save for retirement.

When the words disappear, so do the ideas from which they came. The old vocabulary is struggling to find its way back. Marmor and Mashaw end with a disturbing rhetorical question: "Can we talk about this? Maybe not." If we ignore the power of language to shape ideas and action, we risk the outcome that the last sentence forebodes.