a, Opinion

You say, we hear—words and why they matter

In 1967, economist Milton Friedman gave an address to the members of the American Economic Review. It laid the foundations for the resurgence of monetarism and the rise of neoliberalism, which would eventually replace Keynesianism, revolutionize macroeconomics, and win Friedman a Nobel Prize.

At that time, nearly every macroeconomist in the world was a staunch Keynesian, and Friedman was speaking to a room full of the brightest—yet he changed how they thought about the world, and made them question their most fundamental assumptions. His address, The Role of Monetary Policy, became required reading in universities everywhere and acclaimed by economists all over the political spectrum. What made that speech so brilliant and so successful?

Friedman spoke to them in their own language. Instead of “rational expectations,” he talked about something more familliar, the Phillips Curve—like all substantial changes in group thought, this revolution was driven by language familiar to its audience. Though I disagree with many of Friedman’s conclusions, I respect his rhetorical skill.

The words we choose are important because of the gap between speaker and audience. Listeners are not sponges, indiscriminately sopping up speech; rather, every spoken word triggers rapid chains of association, imagery, and emotion. These chains fundamentally impact how a message is understood. For example, contrast “the right to an abortion” with “the right to choose”: the latter is far friendlier to the ears of voters who positively associate with “choice.”

This is why conservative movements have been so successful in America and Canada; Republicans and Conservatives learned early on that subtle differences in word choice can make or break campaigns—a principle those of us not in politics are finally beginning to understand. Speaking only to the people who agree with us is not enough. Change requires us to speak to many others.

Elections are decided by a relatively small group of people. Moderates, swing-voters, fence-sitters; whatever you choose to call them, recognize their importance. These are the people we must convince. This makes it crucial to step back and hear what you say from the perspective of the audience. What matters is not what you say, but what we hear.

Reasonable arguments can be lamed by verbal slips just as silliness can be panelled with a rational veneer. In the mouth of a skilled speaker, taxes turn to theft and food stamps to waste; and typical voters, with their jobs and families and debts and hobbies, have little time to do more than take what they are given. Arguments made in unfamiliar terms are filtered out and discarded.

In this light, it’s easy to see why social justice movements have such a hard time making inroads into politics. Take, for instance, the usage of the word “oppression.”

To many people, oppression means North Korea, Stalinist Russia, or Chile under Pinochet. So, when they hear, “Group X is oppressed in Canada,” the word “oppression” pulls a lever in their brains and returns “North Korea.” Comparisons between Canada and North Korea are ridiculous, and so our moderate listener marks our speaker down in the “crazy wing-nut” category, right below the Tea Party, and files them away into the dusty drawer of irrelevance.

Substitute whatever group you like and the result will be identical, regardless of whatever truth that statement holds. Using language this way is the ultimate act of self-sabotage – it thwarts both current and future efforts all at once.

Language is a democracy. Just like an independent legislator trying to ram through a bill, trying to change our social dictionary by one’s self will be fruitless. Effective communication relies upon using words in ways the audience understands. Railing against others for not understanding the truth and purity of your lexicon, as righteous as it feels, only makes you a bad communicator.

While I agree with social justice movements on some issues and differ with them on others, it bothers me to see such passionate people dull their skates before they even step onto the ice. “Ideal change on our terms” is not an option: the choices are change with moderate support and no change at all. Getting that moderate support requires using the people’s dictionary. The perfect is often the enemy of the good, and nowhere is this truer than politics.

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