Framing it right: how language limits the left

Word cloud from an article on the economy

Ever wondered why, given the horrendous repeated failures of right-wing policies, right-wing arguments about the economy are still so persuasive?

According to linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio, a lot of it comes down to how we talk about the economy, and what effect the language we use has on how people see change happening.

Word cloud from an article on the economy

What the problem is

Progressives and radicals tend to be good at “critiquing the free market” and “articulating [our] desired goals”. Where we fall down is explaining “how the economy works”.

Stories about how complex systems (like economies) work often use “cognitive metaphors”, easy to understand stories to better undertand abstract ideas i.e. fear as: fluid in a container, “filled with fear”; an enemy or opponent, “fear crept up,” “fear overwhelmed”;  an illness, “sick with fright”; a supernatural being, “haunted by fear”.

The danger comes from how our minds work – unconscious influences are often more powerful than conscious ones, because we never stop to question them.

Conservatives basically always use the same metaphor styles.

The conservative model

Metaphors used personification e.g. health (“ailing”, “recovering”), water (“flowing”), weather (“storms”, “cold business climate”), emotional being (“angry”)
What that implies about the economy organic
What impression this gives the economy is natural, autonomous and self-regulating. Human interference is irrelevant at best. People not being referenced encourages passivity and acceptance of whatever ills there may be.
What that implies the economy is for a moral enforcer, rewarding hard work and punishing laziness.

Basically: simple and straightforward, this metaphor has definite dominance (even amongst the left) in the UK.

Car crashWhat can be done

We don’t use a consistent model, which – according to Shenker-Osorio – leads to cognitive dissonance and a subconscious mistrust when we explain our ideas.

This could be solved by trying  to use a potentially powerful model a lot more often.

The proposed progressive model

Metaphors used machine (“kick-start”, “driving the engine of”, “on the right track”, “stuck in a rut”, “stock market crash”).
What that implies about the economy human-made
What impression this gives need for action by ‘drivers’. Leads to thoughts about quality, direction, speed of movement
What that implies the economy is for the economy should facilitate our journeys, rather than impose its desires on us

Conservatives at the moment have the upper hand in terms of discourse, but given the power of the “life is a journey” metaphor, we should be able to turn that around.

It’s also worth nothing that it’s not just for the economy that this is true: think of “gaps” to describe inequality (explains the what but not the why) versus “barriers” (explains the what and the why i.e. someone put them there).


The economy is a ‘machine’, not a ‘body’ Al Jazeera

Common Cause: The Case for Working with Values and Frames, a great handbook on – n an over-simplified nutshell – why we should pay attention to how we word what we’re doing.


This article was written by a member of the Cuts Cafe group.