Day #090: Richmond language

The issues are already difficult enough, how can we make any progress if our language is loaded?

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Be more deliberate about our language when talking about issues and policy in Richmond.
  • Difficulty: 2 — These are emotional issues that are sometimes difficult to approach objectively.

One of the lessons I’ve learned through this project is the importance of language. One misplaced word or unintentionally loaded phrase can change the entire meaning of an article. One small shift in meaning can upset people and raise their defenses which entirely undermines the genuine goals of tackling difficult subjects and seeking to understand.

There’s no shortage of difficult subjects in Richmond right now. Our schools simply aren’t cutting it. There is a lack of consensus as to how we should invest in economic development in Shockoe Bottom and on Boulevard. With two months remaining in 2014, the city has already witnessed 38 homicides.

Under the best of circumstances, these issues demand the best of us as individuals and have a slim margin for error. Unfortunately, we regularly allow our language to undermine our intents and desires to build a better Richmond. In order to make this city worthy of its residents, it is essential that we seek to find common ground through language in order to disarm defenses while focuses on the issues.

Learn to communicate outside of a heuristic

There is an excellent ebook by Arnold Kling called The Three Languages of Politics. Kling’s thesis starts by creating a three-axis model of heuristics that “tribes” use communicate:

  1. Progressives: opressor-oppressed
  2. Conservatives: civilization-barbarism
  3. Libertarians: freedom-coercion

Tribes use this language within the group in order to “lift one’s status within the tribe, and to whip up hostility against other tribes.” Russ Roberts is a contemporary of Kling and he summed up this idea concisely on his podcast:

It’s one of the things I find most interesting about policy discourse: ‘Not only am I right, not only are you wrong, but I am a better person than you are.’ This is a bizarre outcome for a political discourse, but it’s the default right now. Russ Roberts

We don’t care about talking to those with whom we disagree. Instead, we talk past them in an effort to gain influence with the group who agrees with us.

At the local level, it’s not abundantly clear that ideas divide as cleanly into the progressive, conservative, and libertarian buckets, but the idea holds true. Instead of unifying through unification, we unify by division. Drivers say, “those darn bikers.” Bikers say, “those darn drivers.” Division the easiest way to build a base, but it’s the toughest way to create meaningful change.

Ultimately, Kling advocates “constructive reasoning” instead of “motivated reasoning.” Constructive reasoning is a process of “weighing facts and theories” in order reach a conclusion instead of filtering through research using a predisposition.

Spectrums vs. buckets

Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to capture all of the meaning of a difficult issue in a word or two. When attempting this, it is easy to conflate words. For example, look at class and income. Those two words are distinctly different. Income is a spectrum that represents everyone from the person using food stamps to Warren Buffett. Class is a series of buckets.

We tend to use the word “class” when we want to imply a permanent condition. You can move gradually along the spectrum of income, but you must break through fortress walls to advance in “class.” Jarrett Walker on The Atlantic

When talking about the “lower class” and policy, this has really dangerous implications. It infers that these individuals are in a permanent condition that can only be escaped with a hand up. Regardless of opinions as to policy, that’s probably the worst way to approach the issue of poverty.

Measuring ideas by their origins

Finally, Richmond is a proud town with lots of history and tradition, but sometimes that comes at a cost. We are too quick to judge the quality of ideas by their origin – and in no way does this manifest itself more than by birth city.

Any person with meaningful ideas that aim to better Richmond should be heard independent of city of birth, length of Richmond residency, wealth/income, race, or education.

— ∮∮∮ —

This article would have been best published in the first week, because I am one of the biggest offenders. I could and can be more deliberate with my language in my quest to understand and find ways to improve Richmond. Whenever I get in a huff or retreat into my heuristic, an Aaron Sorkin quote comes back to me: “The things that unite us are far greater than the things that divide us.”

In Richmond, the things that unite are great. Before unifying by dividing, turning a spectrum into a binary classification, or questioning an idea because of its origin, we need to remember that we all have the same objective: making Richmond the best place it can be.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the Pierre Metivier

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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