Monday, December 31, 2012

Over the "Cliff" - the Power of Language

The latest word out of Washington is that the Congress will not agree on any kind of legislation by tonight's deadline that would avert the spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect tomorrow. There are any number of things I could write about this situation - perhaps about the importance of compromise, the implications for social services, or the class inequality which will mean the poor shoulder a heavier burden. All of these issues are important. However, from a psychological perspective, what has stood out to me throughout conversations on this topic is how the language we use to talk about it influences its emotional impact.

Notice in my first sentence that I referenced "spending cuts and tax increases," rather than the more common phrases that are being used to describe the situation. In contrast, media and politicians speak of the "financial crisis" as "the fiscal cliff." Words like "crisis" and "cliff" imply threat and danger. These words are chosen to incite anxiety among the public, and therefore to further stir up an already tense political climate.

Post-modern schools of practice such as Narrative Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are based on the premise that our perceptions of "reality" are based on language rather than fact. They build on Social Constructionism's stance that all "truths" are constructed through social processes. What all this means is that we use language to construct reality, and the reality we end up with is more a function of the language we choose than "facts."

In therapy, we work with clients to alter their perceptions of reality by changing the way they think about things. We may call it reframing, or cognitive restructuring, or reauthoring, or interpretation, but the desired result is that people will find more flexible and less negative ways of making meaning out of their experiences.

The same process might apply to the so-called fiscal cliff. Because talk of "going over the cliff" calls up a vivid image of...well, falling off a cliff...the natural response is to want to dig in our heels and cling to something for safety. That reaction does not inspire balanced and flexible ways of thinking about our economy!

Unfortunately, "tax increases" and "spending cuts" have also become layered with socially-constructed meaning. These seemingly-neutral descriptions have become rallying cries for partisan politics - the words elicit a negative, defensive response from conservatives and liberals, respectively. Unfortunately, this effect of language has paralyzed our entire political system, preventing any of our politicians from taking a balanced, flexible approach - an important ingredient in any meaningful compromise.

I don't have an answer or solution here. It is more of an observation, and an encouragement to be aware of the impact of language - the language you choose, and the language you hear - and consider whether that language is the only, or most helpful, way of thinking and speaking.

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