writings

the language of the working class

I was listening to an episode of Make Me Smart (embedded below) which was focused on the language of Donald Trump and how, no matter what he says, certain demographics listen, believe, and follow his words. George Lakoff, noted linguist, discussed the ways Trump uses a certain manner of speaking that connects us with a father figure type of need we may have.

Recently my co-author and I published a chapter regarding educating the working class in academia. Within that chapter, we discussed the ways the working class respond to authority figures. We (because we both come from a poor working class family — we’re siblings) noticed that we respond in a similar way (although neither of us has responded to Donald Trump in this way — but that goes to Lakoff’s later discussion regarding literal language). In general, the poor working class, and working class in general, respond to authority figures by following the rules. Because people in these demographics have rarely been in positions of authority, they (we) have become “yes” people. This manifests in many ways, but it is similar to what Lakoff is describing as the father figure focus. We believe what those in authority tell us, we follow their lead, and we don’t question that authority.

It is not surprising to me that much of the poor working class and the overall working class follow authoritative politicians or that those demographics shifted this past presidential election. We have been conditioned by our socio-economics to believe this is what is the right path and that to question means we could 1) lose a job; 2) lose any position we’ve gained; 3) lose the respect of those around us. In this case, Trump played on the concept of losing any position we’ve gained. Poor and middle working class whites were instructed to believe that the ways the economy are being run, the ways our borders are patrolled, and the ways education are structured are making us lose the positions we once had as the dominant culture. That can be a scary scenario for people who have struggled all of their lives to find some sort of space in which they don’t feel they are struggling to be economically viable every day. That’s not to say this is right or fair or just, only that there is a conditioning that has occurred through the ways we label, create hierarchy, and develop socially.

The ways language is used can dip into those deep reservoirs of conditioning to remind of us of our place within a socio-economic structure, and to remind us that we must follow the rules or be at some risk — which, in the current political climate could be the mislabeling of “bad” people (feminist, activist, illegal, immigrant, etc.).

Lakoff has some great ways to respond to this type of authoritarian language in the podcast.

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