Help, harm or be heard? The power of language

The game changers

Joe BrewerJoe Brewer is Founder of Cognitive Policy Works and lead researcher at DarwinSF 

Have you ever wondered about the importance of language? Noticed the way that people think and talk about an issue is somehow “out of touch” with what is true and real? Aspired to see a shift in the way political and social issues are understood?

Then you are in good company.

I have specialized in the study of cognitive linguistics and its many applications in politics for nearly a decade. During this time I have observed that the words we use (or don’t use!) come to shape how we understand the world. If you want people to dislike the government, call for “tax cuts” that imply taxation to be an unfair burden on the public. And if you want people to care about the common good, talk about “civic duty” and the benefits of living in a supportive community.

One way to analyze the power of words is through discourse analysis. A discourse is all of the ways people think and talk about a particular topic. You can, as two examples, have a discourse on education or a discourse on climate change. There will be some people who are influential on a topic and whose opinions shape their followers. And there will be official media channels from trusted sources that define the “correct” names for topics. This is true for anything that is widely talked about.

The composition of a discourse can be helpful or harmful to different people. For example, when I assisted in a major research study on poverty and the development discourse (published as the Finding Frames report a few years ago), it became clear that organizations working to bring poverty to an end were unknowingly complicit in the rise of wealth inequality throughout the Global South. They were hurting those whom they aspired to help!

This happened because most development NGO’s think and talk about themselves using the language of “charity” and “aid” – both of which reinforce the notion that privileged, wealthy Westerners are the powerful actors and that the poor (often dark skinned and female) Southerners are passive victims of their impoverished plight. By framing the discourse in this manner, they were unwittingly contributing to the power structures that create poverty. I have since begun working with a new anti-poverty organization called The Rules that is applying these insights to transform the global discourse on development and poverty and remedy this situation.

A new study of the language around disability shows the same problematic use of language. “The disabled” are separated out into an exclusive category of society. The language about them reinforces notions of superiority among “normal” people and steals away the vocal power of disabled persons by always placing them in a passive role. The good people at Scope share some of the findings from this study and encourage healthy conversations about what can be done about it.

I offer up this brief post to suggest that discourse is a vitally important topic of study. The words we use have power to shape reality. And so we must incorporate the best research tools available for revealing the strategic implications of language use. To do so is to shine a beacon of light on our own inner worlds. Failure to do so is to wander around in the dark, unaware even when we make massive strategic blunders.

I hope this short commentary offers insight and empowerment to all who seek to alter social discourse and reframe the debate in a way that empowers the marginalized and restores social justice in society.

What is Britain saying about disability?

3 thoughts on “Help, harm or be heard? The power of language”

  1. A very insightful post and the sentence that really stood out to me is, “The words we use have power to shape reality.” I completely agree with this. I support it on a professional level – I’m a web copywriter who works with charities – and also on a personal level, as a parent to a young child. The language we use and which we accept or do not accept from other people is what shapes our children’s reality.

    1. Hi Joanna,

      It is great that you see the importance of language in both your professional and personal worlds. Every parent is (or should be) attuned to the power of ideas that will shape the emotional development of their children. In a similar vein, we must all take care that our organizations do the same — especially in the social impact arena!

      Very best,


  2. Long time ago I did a course on social psychology. One of the things I remember from that course was the ease at which people can be divided into “us and them”. So for example if you randomly assign a group of students into “blues” and “reds” they start to develop an identity of a “blue” or a “red”. Now this is of course temporary, but if you persist with this division for a year you have created two groups of people with distinct identities. The reds look at the blues as “the other”, or even as the enemy and vice versa.

    This is why I think Joe is absolutely right about the importance of language. We can accidentally reinforce certain identities and downplay others. What if we put more effort into highlighting group identities that had nothing to do with disability for example? For example “cat lovers” (who happen to be disabled or not disabled). Or would that just create new problems..?

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