In the past few years, I have heard more and more people lament about their inability to discuss important issues by saying they didn’t “have the language” to articulate their thoughts before. For example, it’s a term I often hear used when people want to describe their difficulty discussing gender issues or being victims of abuse. Having the language means being able to have a descriptive, extended conversation about one’s thoughts and feelings. Without that ability, people run the risk of being identified as complainers, trouble makers, confused or crazy, compromising their identity and value.
So, what does that mean for people who do have the language? They are the most likely to persuade others. In our tense social climate, it is extraordinarily important for people to be able to relay their thoughts and feelings in a reasonable, logical, compelling manner, especially if they are adversely affected by a set of issues.
Language is power, and a great example is the success of the American conservative movement. In 2003, George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at the University of California Berkeley, predicted that conservatives would dominate national debates through the use of language. He used “framing,” defining specific words and/or terms to form a concept, as the foundation for his argument. This not about ideology, by the way. I am a progressive, but I admire the conservatives’ attention to detail and ability to play the long game.
According to Lakoff:
“In Arnold Schwarzenegger's (2003 California gubernatorial Republican nomination) acceptance speech, he said, ‘When the people win, politics as usual loses.’ What's that about? Well, he knows that he's going to face a Democratic legislature, so what he has done is frame himself and also Republican politicians as the people, while framing Democratic politicians as politics as usual - in advance. The Democratic legislators won't know what hit them. They're automatically framed as enemies of the people.”
When asked why conservatives appear to be better than progressives at framing:
“Because they've put billions of dollars into it. Over the last 30 years their think tanks have made a heavy investment in ideas and in language. In 1970, [Supreme Court Justice] Lewis Powell wrote a fateful memo to the National Chamber of Commerce saying that all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell's agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks.
“And now…they have 1,500 conservative radio talk show hosts. They have a huge, very good operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.”
This made me think about my radio career. I struggled to connect with the audience of a hip hop and R&B radio station where I worked because I was uncompromising about my identity as an educated, articulate semi-formal speaker. I connected better with the listeners of the old school R&B station where I worked, but ultimately connected best with talk show audiences. I found a group whose language I spoke even when they disagreed with my points of view, and that breathed life into my identity and value.
It stands to reason that a significant part of having the language is vocabulary. You don’t have to go Michael Eric Dyson on folks, but a grasp of vocabulary strengthens one’s identity and value. InferCabulary points out that besides language development and communicating ideas, a strong vocabulary provides a foundation for reading comprehension, written success, and career success. Before you throw “duh” at me, go back to Lakoff’s noting that the conservative language agenda from nearly 50 years ago has included a significant investment in education.
Here’s where we get lost in the sauce—context. There are several types of context to consider when we are trying to form the language to discuss issues: historical, psychological, cultural, social, and physical. I think about when I hear White Americans refer to the 1950’s as the “good ol’ days.” Maybe that’s true in terms of overall economic growth and how the “innocence” of America was portrayed in music and media; but those weren’t great days to me, an African American who thinks of Jim Crow. Historical context gives me the language to persuade people to consider a more balanced view and context also enhances my identity and value as someone who brings a more thoughtful perspective to the conversation.
I understand that being able to persuade others goes deeper than language. At times, we’re fighting attitudes. Having the language, however, can provide the person making the argument confidence and a peace of mind.
My call, therefore, is for us to pay attention to the importance of language to our identity and value. To take having the language for granted is to miss countless opportunities to protect our dignity in critical spaces. If we can’t protect our dignity, we can’t celebrate who we are and our influence on those around us.