George Lakoff has an important post over at Daily Kos. It’s an analysis of what’s gone wrong in the health care debate, but it also has a lot of relevance for anyone who is concerned about advancing some cause in an organization. Among other things, it reminds us that changing the ways people think and act is no small matter. That certainly includes the myriad of ways in which organizational actions affect women’s professional lives.
I’ve read the Lakoff in terms of one major point; do read it for yourself, since you may well want to focus on other things. But here’s the one that caught my attention. It’s with regard to an approach the Obama people have adopted that Lakoff calls “PolicySpeak”:
To many liberals, PolicySpeak sounds like the high road: a rational, public discussion in the best tradition of liberal democracy. Convince the populace rationally on the objective policy merits. Give the facts and figures. Assume self-interest as the motivator of rational choice. Convince people by the logic of the policymakers that the policy is in their interest.
But to a cognitive scientist or neuroscientist, this sounds nuts. The view of human reason and language behind PolicySpeak is just false. Certainly reason should be used. It’s just that you should use real reason, the way people really think. Certainly the truth should be told. It’s just that it should be told so it makes sense to people, resonates with them, and inspires them to act. Certainly new media should be used. It’s just that a system of communications should be constructed and used effectively. (All stress mine; since I agree with Lakoff, I’m using italics for the nutty stuff and underlining the true stuff.)
Let me give an example from academia: I have a close friend involved with one of the most despised organizations on his campus. It is regarded as a fat cat that lives off state funding and never brings in federal dollars, which is the gold standard for success in science on most US campuses. However, in fact the organization has brought in millions and millions in federal money, and it has high standing in the scientific community. So over the last several years he’s talked to administrators, prepared short handouts, long handouts, gone over the handouts with zillions of people. He’s given powerpoint presentations, had people to meals, etc. All the people he’s talking to are deans and above becausse they are the ones creating the most problems; they keep trying to shut it down or take resources from it. They are highly educated people who have some experience in administering large organizations. If Laykoff is right, his action probably did not have much effect. And in fact they didn’t. Probably he should consider hiring someone who does marketing.
So what do you do to get it right? Well, language and what we select to describe are very important. We’re not going to have much impact on the health care debate in the States, but the work is something we could well think about when we advocate that, for example, women are asked to be keynote speakers at conferences. If Lakoff is right, then we might try to frame the message in a way that appeals to fundamental values in the philosophy profession. For example, philosophers are close to obsessed with justice, fairness and true merit. We could think about making sure that our concerns are seen in those terms.
Another value women philosophers share for the most part is inclusion and cooperation, so I am not for one second proposing this as a project for just a few people. Have a look at the Lakoff and see if it inspires any ideas. If so, please share them.
His piece is long, but really interesying. You probably could get a lot out of it by reading only parts of the second half.