Language should guide how we live, not belittle

Language should guide how we live, not belittle

Auckland, November 27, 2019

While reading about a promising new policy initiative by a bright-eyed non-profit organisation, I did a double-take when I read they were seeking to make a big “impact” to the community.

It isn’t a new term, of course, but for some reason I got images of the devastating crash of a meteor slamming into the earth or the gut-wrenching smash of a car accident.

The words we use matter, for they frame and guide all we do.

Oxford defines impact as the “action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another.” And while the second sense of Impact is “a marked effect or influence,” I find it difficult to detach this milder meaning the other more destructive one.

This could be just me, but I think it reflects a bigger problem.

Speaking without thinking

We use words like this often and unthinkingly. How about targeting, a term more appropriate for archery than social policy. Or interventions, reminiscent of an awkward, hopefully addiction-breaking confrontation.

In the 1980s, linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson noted how metaphors aren’t just words we use “metaphors we live by…shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them.” Our language, therefore, guides how we live and relate to one another, and this kind of language belittles rather than empowers.

What all these words such as impacting, targeting, intervening have in common is a “doing to” mentality.

Communities are tired of well-meaning but misguided policy-makers doing things to or for them, rather than with them.

I am reminded of our research on disability and work, where the catch-cry is “nothing about us without us.” Communities like Pasifika also share a similar ethos, where the phrase “by the Pacific, for the Pacific, with the Pacific” was recently upheld as a guiding principle at a Human Rights gathering. 

Ladder of Participation

Armstein’s Ladder of Participation. a framework that has doing to at the bottom, doing for in the middle, and doing with at the top, is a useful way of understanding how we can improve our language and our practice.

Doing to involves coercing, educating, and informing; doing for engaging and consulting; and doing with co-designing and co-producing.

Co-designing means listening to and acting upon people’s voices, and co-producing involves people in delivery on top of this.

Moving up this ladder where appropriate should be the goal of those working in policy, towards solutions that uphold people’s mana, dignity, and agency.

Shifting policy

Instead of targeting, how about tailoring? Instead of interventions, how about sticking with programmes? Must we impact? How about we solve problems with, or walk alongside families and communities? I think there is hope in this space.

Locally-driven projects like the Tamaki Regeneration Programme in East Auckland or the Southern Initiative in South Auckland are both exploring co-design principles in their work. Whanau Ora and the Social Sector Trials did too.

Doing policy to people has had an impact, but not in the way we might want.

Let’s shift to policy for and with New Zealanders.

Kieran Madden is a Researcher at the Auckland based Maxim Institute.

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