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And then inequality happened

How Obama’s language left no one to blame

President Barack Obama reacted to applause at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus.AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI/AFP

The United States is a place of wide income inequality. By recent estimates, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans take home over 22 percent of pre-tax income and hold more than 34 percent of wealth. This month, fast-food workers in 100 cities protested the wages that confine them to poverty; on Wall Street, meanwhile, investment banking interns average more than $70,000.

So for many it was heartening that, on Dec. 4, President Obama gave a major speech positioning inequality as a significant issue both morally and economically. Obama described three myths prevalent in the debate on the subject. First, he addressed the belief that this issue affects only a mostly black and brown minority of Americans. Next, he assured listeners that ensuring growth and tackling inequality are complementary goals. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he pushed back on the idea that government cannot do anything to remedy the problem.


Left-leaning pundits praised the president. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent wrote that "experts…will see it as one of the most important speeches of the Obama presidency." Paul Krugman, in The New York Times, declared that Obama was "finally sounding like the progressive many of his supporters thought they were backing in 2008."

You might think this would make the wealthy tremble in their calfskin loafers. In fact, though, the very grammatical constructions of the speech suggest they have nothing to fear. Even as he made the case for government involvement, Obama's language signaled something else: that our economic divide is a problem of origin unknown, and thus beyond our power to solve.

In summarizing highlights of America's economic past, Obama used declarative sentences that made clear what various leaders accomplished. "It was Abraham Lincoln, a self-described 'poor man's son,' who started a system of land grant colleges all over this country....A rich man's son named Teddy Roosevelt fought for an eight-hour workday....FDR fought for Social Security....LBJ fought for Medicare and Medicaid."


But as he turned to characterize the Great Recession, Obama's speech pattern changed: He shifted to a sentence structure that excludes human actors from the subject position. "The deck is stacked" against the working class, Obama said. Why? Because "taxes were slashed," he said, and "growth has flowed to a fortunate few." His language gave no indication of who brought about these disparities.

Instead, his words suggested abstract ideas were capable of independent action. "Because of upward mobility," Obama said, "the guy on the factory floor could picture his kid running the company." And, he went on, "jobs automated or headed offshore." In a nearly hourlong speech, only rarely did we get any glimpse of who-did-what-to-whom: "Businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage."

It's no surprise that Obama's not naming names—throughout the economic collapse and its aftermath, that kind of avoidance has been commonplace among politicians. What makes this speech stand out is that even as it attempts to put forth deliberate remedies to inequality, its language undermines the notion that we are confronting a problem humans made, not a hurricane or nasty flu, and suggests that the problem is out of human hands. It's a perfect example of why English teachers admonish us to avoid passive constructions.


Research has shown that the grammar we use to describe events influences how audiences perceive them: In particular, the choice of an active or passive voice can make people change their assessments of blame. Using the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" from the Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2004, social psychologists Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky found that respondents who read that Justin Timberlake "tore" Janet Jackson's clothing attributed blame and sought to levy 53 percent more in fines than those who read that "the bodice tore." This was true even though all the participants first watched a video of what happened.

If we can so easily alter perceptions of an event through language, it's all the more critical how we characterize an abstract, ongoing problem like inequality. Consider some current competing accounts for what has caused inequality to soar: Some see wage stagnation at fault, others contend that technological innovation eliminates jobs, and still others argue that it's a result of women entering the workforce. The inequality origin story shapes what you think ought to happen next.

This is the danger when we suggest that no one is to blame. It's one thing to say "inequality has increased." It's another to do the politically difficult work of naming a culprit. It's one thing to say children are born into poverty; it's another to acknowledge that voters have supported specific education, health, tax, and wage policies that keep them there.


Unless we describe problems as having been made by people, it's reasonable to conclude they cannot be fixed by people. Obama effectively described some of the myths preventing serious attention to inequality. His own language, however, suggests an unwillingness to take on an even more pernicious one: the notion that inequality is a plague that befell us rather than the result of people writing the rules. Until we can talk about who did what to get us here, in ways that extend to our very sentence structure, it will be hard to put forth a compelling case that we can change course.

Anat Shenker-Osorio, author of "Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense About the Economy," is a language researcher and consultant. You can follow her on Twitter @anatosaurus.