I think New Year’s Resolutions are dumb. I thought about joining a gym for about 15 seconds on January 1, but quickly came to my senses. That said, one of the major “learnings” I am taking from 2016 is about the power of the language we use in teaching, politics, and policy. The terms we use, or allow others to use, establish the realm of possibility and the space for policy negotiation.
In my class, I decline to use the loaded political terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice”. The people who support the death penalty, oppose even modest gun control laws, refuse to condemn excessive use of force by law enforcement, and cheerlead calls to bomb half the nations in South West Asia (I also teach them not to use the Euro-centric nomenclature Middle East) do not deserve to be called “pro-life”. Instead, we use the more accurate and neutral terms "supporters of abortion access” or “supporters of abortion restrictions”.
I think about this often when reading the news. Much of our political discourse happens in terms created by and to benefit those with power and wealth. We unblinkingly use the term “right-to-work” to describe laws designed specifically to weaken unions and their power to collectively bargain. These laws have led to the hollowing out of the middle class and have directly contributed to lower standards of living and wages among “economically anxious” workers in the Rust Belt--the same Rust Belt that Donald Trump swept in the election.
Arguably, the biggest failing of the Obama Administration was conceding to the GOP’s use of the term Obamacare, rather than the Affordable Care Act or ACA. The administration called it Obamacare, the media called in Obamacare, Democratic strategists called it Obamacare, and public approval for the program consistently hovered around 47%. A recent poll showed that approval for Kentucky’s implementation of the ACA is thirty points more popular than “Obamacare” among Kentuckians, even though they’re the exact same thing.
President Obama (unwittingly) allowed a program that provides healthcare to 20 million Americans to become a referendum on him. Now, GOP zeal about repealing the ACA is largely about handing him one final humiliating “L”. All this, even though the individual mandate was originally a Republican policy, even though the program is modeled largely on Massachusetts’ health care program, created by Republican Mitt Romney. They hate Obama, so they hate Obamacare… even if they’re on it. The administration should have seen that coming.
We have to get smarter about the words we choose and how we engage those we seek to persuade. When coastal, college educated, know-it-alls (points finger at self) traffic excessively in jargon we are talking over the heads of folks we need on our side and who share our interests and aspirations.
There are lessons to be learned from the classroom here, dear reader. One of the reasons I am an effective humanities teacher is because I convey complicated ideas in an easily digestible manner; I constantly introduce gestures, create analogies, explain metaphors from pop culture, and on a rare occasion break out a rap. Once understanding is established, I codeswitch to introduce the academic vocabulary for the concept. I teach freshmen about the different types of migration (chain, forced, asylum and labor) by giving historical examples and then assigning each a gesture. Simple language first, then the technical follows.
I plan to keep my classroom in mind this year when talking about education and tax policy. For example, Washington State has the most regressive tax system of any state in the nation. According to The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the poorest 20% of Washingtonians pay 16.8% of their annual income in taxes; for the wealthiest one percent of Washingtonians the number is 2.4%. This creates an unfair burden that harms already struggling low to moderate income families.
Every single person working in the Governor’s office and every member of the Washington State Legislature knows this is true, but for a host of reasons--overly wonky communication by advocates, a slew of corporate campaign spending by opponents, partisan opposition to "all things tax" by one party in the legislature--the sensible solution, one embraced at the federal level, and by 43 states--a progressive income tax is off the table and our schools suffer as a result.
This is at the core of the school funding issues we face in Washington State. But saying our taxes are “overly regressive” is just economic jargon to most. This needs to be put plainly: “If Washington State had Idaho’s tax system (and rates) our schools, mental health and transportation infrastructure would be much better funded.” Y’all, Idaho. This is my begrudging resolution this year--to plain-talk to folks about matters of education, justice and economics that impact my students and my community.
I thought about joining the gym this year, but I think this suits me better.