metaphor

A Simple Turn of Phrase

As you know, if you have been reading this blog recently, we have been discussing the role of language in making change. To put it simply, words are powerful (and it is not just us old English majors who think so). However, even those of us who think about these issues regularly, too often focus on the big picture at the expense of considering the mundane, everyday language we use. While we study Obama’s speeches we forget to think about how we talk to our neighbors.

In the world of meeting facilitation there is a common tool – most people who have been a part of big meetings recently have probably heard of it – the “parking lot.” The idea is that when good (or particularly thorny) issues arise in the course of a meeting that demand follow-up or are perhaps outside the scope of the task at hand, you put them in the “parking lot” and come back to them later.

I was at a meeting recently and as the facilitator was going through the agenda, she pointed to a big piece of butcher block paper hung up at the back of the room and said that was the “bike rack.” People in the room chuckled at that, and I admit that I at first thought in a somewhat snide way “Haha, they are so clever.” However, the more I thought about that turn of phrase – replacing parking lots with bike racks – the more I cam to think of it as a brilliant, simple revision of our everyday language. (more…)

Politics, Pragmatism, and Rhetoric – Part Two

Part two in a two part series about the intersection of pragmatism and rhetoric in Barack Obama’s politics. If you have not read part one, you can find it here.

I left the first part of this discussion with this passage from Barack Obama’s inaugural address:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.  We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

In this passage we get a glimpse of one more vital overlap between Obama and pragmatism – the emphasis on language. Since the 2004 Democratic National Convention Obama has been deeply  identified with his skill as an orator. Indeed, on the campaign his skill in this area was one of the first things to be used against him by his opponents. He was described as being all words, and no action – all rhetoric and no experience (which was ironic at least in part because so much of his rhetoric was about the power and importance of his life experiences).

By now it is clear that Obama understood, much better than his opponents and his critics, the connection between language and action. As he stood with his hand on the bible being sworn in as the 44th president, he understood that we don’t just speak a language, but are shaped by it as well. Richard Rorty is a modern pragmatist who has written extensively about our ability “to actualize hitherto undreamt-of possibilities by putting new linguistic and other practices into play, and erecting new social constructs.” Which is a fancy way of saying we can change the world by changing the way we speak (and think) about that world. (more…)