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Conscience Magazine

Faith in Words, Trust in People: George Lakoff and the politics of language

April 19, 2017

In ‘The Trouble With’ George Lakoff,’ Joanna Williams puts linguist George Lakoff on notice. At first scoffing at his suggestion that the “prochoice” rhetoric should be updated to tap into a more powerful moral frame, Williams then tempers her criticism, saying words do in fact matter. But in this case, she argues, the “prochoice” signals the abortion rights movement’s long commitment to women’s autonomy.

I agree with Williams, though, in part. I do believe words matter—a lesson I’ve learned again and again after 20+ years of communications campaigns around the world. In the case of abortion—where opponents have sought to supplant a women’s right to choose with that of so-called fetal rights—prochoice has been a useful frame that puts women’s rights and needs at the center of healthcare decisions.

But however much “prochoice” resonates with champions of women’s rights (myself included), why not explore other language when women’s access to abortion is increasingly restricted?

Today, for example, Americans’ trust in government is at an all-time low. So, why not move the debate away from choice to trust? Whom do you trust more to make important health decisions: a woman and her doctor—or a politician seeking to score political points? My point is not that “trust” is the magic frame, but that we should continue to explore these questions.

Principal, Springboard Partners
Washington, D.C.