How we converse and the words we use reflect moral values. To be effective progressive advocates, we must speak Progressive. (More)

Speaking Progressive (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling’s The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic . Thursday we looked at their core premise, that human reasoning is grounded in moral rather than factual analysis. Yesterday we explored how to challenge political myths and lies without reinforcing those same myths and lies. Today we conclude with a Democratic phrase list that evokes progressive moral reasoning.

George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several books, including Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics. Elisabeth Wehling is a Ph.D candidate at the University of California, Berkeley and earned her master’s degree in communication psychology at Hamburg University. In addition to her research, she writes and consults on German and European politics.

How we converse does matter

CNN’s thankfully-defunct Crossfire may have begun the trend, but Battling Boors quickly became a staple of cable news. The format was simple: have a Republican and a Democrat on the panel and get them to yell at each other. Defenders claimed the format presented both sides of the issues. In fact it was a distinctly conservative approach to political dialogue, where policy issues were treated as battlegrounds to be fought over for partisan advantage rather than problems to be solved as part of building a stronger community, where dominating a conversation is seen as strength and listening is seen as weakness.

To be effective progressive advocates, we must speak Progressive, and the first step is to root our conversational style in progressive moral values. As progressives we believe that each person matters equally, and that must show in how we talk about politics: actively listening for shared values and remembering that the person we’re speaking with matters more than winning an argument.

In terms of general conversation style, the authors focus on three points:

  • Keep It Simple – Ask yourself: Have I seen, touched, smelled, or tasted this? Could I draw a picture of it, or pantomime it and be understood? If not, they suggest you break the idea into simpler and more concrete parts.
  • Bring It Home and Be Authentic – Bring abstract issues down to earth with stories about people you know personally. When talking about your moral values, it may help to share how you learned those values or how your understanding of them has changed (e.g.: President Obama shared how talking with his wife and daughters led to his support for marriage equality).
  • Say What You Believe – As we saw yesterday, repeating conservative ideas will reinforce those ideas. Instead of ‘debunking’ those conservative ideas, focus on sharing your progressive ideas.

Progressive Words and Phrases

The words we use evoke a cascade of responses for each listener. We should use words that evoke positive responses and progressive moral values:

  • Our communities collect revenues to invest in basic civic tasks that we can’t do as well on our own – Contrast those words with government taking taxes to spend money on services we could and should get from private business. The differences are not mere euphemisms. They reflect and reinforce progressive moral values.
  • When we neglect revenues, we hurt people in our communities and steal from our children to give favors to billionaires and big corporations – Contrast those words with tax cuts underfunding social welfare programs and schools to help the wealthy and business. The first makes moral statements about harm and fairness, while the second makes policy-wonk claims and will offend those who consider themselves wealthy or own a business, or hope to do so someday.
  • Liberal markets are based on a social contract where workers are assets and share the benefits of innovation and cooperation – Contrast that with free markets where everyone competes, the strong survive, and workers cost profits. In the progressive moral framework, workers and employers are equal.
  • Workers earn health care as deferred pay that rewards worker loyalty, so employers should respect workers’ health care needs such as pregnancy prevention – Contrast those words with employers giving or providing health insurance, so employers have the right to limit benefits like birth control. Once again, workers and employers are morally equal.

For over thirty years, the language and tactics of conservatism have swamped our political dialogue. It’s time to speak Progressive again.


Happy Saturday!