Language Matters, But Not Much To Journalists

George Lakoff is an amazing linguistics guru who I have quoted often. He has something to say about what Republicans in Michigan did to unions:

Michigan has just passed a corporate servitude law. It is designed to take away many of the worker rights that unions have conferred throughout their history: the right to a living wage. The right to equal pay for women. The right to deferred payments in the form of pensions. The right to negotiate workplace standards and working conditions. The right to overtime pay.

The law is intended to destroy unions, or at least make then ineffective.

Something else Lakoff said should have your attention:

The deeper truth about unions is that they don’t just create and maintain rights for workers; they work for and create crucial rights in society as a whole. Unions created weekends, the eight-hour workday and health benefits. And through their politics, they have been at the center of support for civil rights and other social justice issues. In short, unions don’t just work for their members. They work for all of us. Including businesses: Workers are profit creators.

But perhaps the most important truth Lakoff, the linguist, passes on to all of us who call ourselves Democrats is this:

Language matters. Republicans understand this better than Democrats. Republicans have called their corporate servitude law a “right to work” law, as if the law conferred a right instead of taking many away. The first principle of political and social communication in cases of conflict is: avoid the other side’s language. The Democrats keep violating this principle, using the Republicans’ name for this law. In this way they are helping Republicans, because using the Republican language activates Republican framing, not just for this law, but for conservative ideology at the deepest level…

Language works so that the conservative name “right to work” evokes the conservative political ideology in the brains of those who hear it without wincing. The more an idea is activated in the brain the stronger it gets. Thus, the use of the conservative name strengthens the conservative ideology in the brains of the public.

The press is not being neutral in using the Republican name for the law. Journalists too, in just using the name, are supporting both the Republican framing of the law and conservative ideology. The press is not being balanced — which is what journalists typically claim to be. Balance would be to use both the names “corporate servitude law” and “right to work law” and to explain the differences in the progressive and conservative understanding of what the law is and does.

Of course, to do so would change a false view of language that journalists too often internalize, namely, that language is neutral. To see that it isn’t, just try speaking or writing of “Michigan’s corporate servitude law” and listen to conservatives scream bloody murder over a truth that does fit their view of democracy. And listen to them keep screaming because it is important to keep repeating the true name of the law if the public is to understand what the law really does.

No, language is not neutral. Language matters. Journalism matters. Politics matters.  Ask labor unions in Michigan. Heck, ask Susan Rice, who has now withdrawn her name from consideration to be our Secretary of State, all because a handful of Republican senators, among them John McCain and Lindsey Graham, working openly with Fox “News” and other more reputable news outlets, sought to destroy her public service career, and now have.

I recommend you read the entire Lakoff piece.



  1. Very good piece here, and despite my personal lack of union experience I perceive that Lakoff is right about “right to work” terminology. Language is not only powerful but seminal to analytical thought. This is not new information, writers from Shakespeare to George Orwell and beyond have known so. (“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”)

    If the Republican mantra were correct that workers’ welfare would be better without unions, that a rising tide lifts all boats and that prosperity trickles down, then where is the evidence? Where is the evidence that virtually all pay scales would not be at a subsistence level, as most were in Charles Dickens’ time? There is none. Without unions or the threat of unions, without business regulatory laws like anti-trust statutes, without social legislation like unemployment insurance and the minimum wage, I do not doubt that we would still be living as they did in the gilded age – gold for the 2% and bread lines for the 47%.


  2. Unions are the only remaining buffer between the working class and the ruling class which has successfully conscripted what was once a free press. Where there is no free press there are no free people. The Republican platform is no longer political in purpose. It is an economic insurgency bent on controlling the message through controlling the media, and hence the livelihood of working Americans. Americans have become so used to eating regular meals and having stuff that we’ve become easy prey to economic terrorism. They’ve been able to divide us by ethnicity, socioeconomic status, Religion, and politics all in the name of patriotism. Unions are the collective wedge between the many who have little and the few who have much. If American unions fail then human rights and freedom as we’ve come to know it will also fail.

    We have a lot of work to do before the 2014 midterm election, especially in states such as Florida and Missouri. We slacked off in 2010 and look where that left us.


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