Regardless of one’s perspective, it underscores the importance of language in shaping and justifying policy and our larger social debates. In Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, Obama re-framed the attempt to repeal healthcare, nesting it in a larger narrative about how we must “win the future.” By focusing his speech on the future, Obama was able to easily paint a picture of GOP attempts to repeal
his signature legislative victory as a contrasting effort to move backward while the rest of the country wishes to move forward.
Image from guardian.co.uk. Click here to see Obama's "word cloud" compared to those of past presidents.
Though his key catchphrase shared an odd connection to right-wing media, the focus on the future was consistent with the major themes of his 2008 presidential campaign, which urged everyone to look past the distress of our current times with hope toward the future.
Community psychologists may not typically think of their efforts in terms of language or political speech, but in our effort to build a more equitable society, language is central. In an article titled “Globalization, Neo-Liberalism and Community Psychology” in a 2009 issue of the American Journal of Community Psychology devoted to politics, language is described as the central tool in community psychology. In this study, the authors investigated the increasing use of capitalist language emphasizing competition, free markets, and consumerism in Norway, supplanting language emphasizing social equity and support.
Language, the authors argued, provides the meeting ground between the individual and the macrosystem and the decreasing use of words that translate as “sharing” or “common” in the Norweigian language both signifies and furthers a shift away from a culture that promotes social cohesion to one that is based on individual self-interest. As a member of a country in which even progressive politicians accused of being communists use the language of individualism and competition, it is helpful to reflect on this language. While I am in support of looking toward the future, I’m not quite sure I want to “win” it. I’d rather have a future where everyone can share in its success.