Language is power. George Orwell recognized this in his novel 1984 through the character Syme, who is vaporized by Big Brother due to his keen understanding of how thought can be controlled through the manipulation of language.
In a similar vein, we in the manufacturing and engineering community have ceded control over the discussion of our role in the economy and our importance to national security. Almost without exception, our role is being characterized by various pundits across the general media, few, if any, of whom have a manufacturing or engineering background.
By allowing others to frame our importance to the nation and the economy, not only do we lose the debate, but also we lose the opportunity to even enter into the debate. Statistical snippets, opinions, and sound-bite friendly catch phrases, repeated often enough, become commonly accepted truths to the public.
Here are some of the more common phrases or statements in current use that illustrate this point.
Statement: "Manufacturing makes up only 20% of the nation's output."
Message: 20% is relatively small. Why should we worry so much about it?
Rebuttal: Lies, damn lies and statistics. The heart that pumps the blood around my body accounts for only 2% of my body mass. Yet it is a 2% I would rather not do without.
Statement: "The United States is developing a post-industrial economy."
Message: Our society or economy has become so sophisticated that we no longer need to be concerned with where things are designed or produced.
Rebuttal: Name one global power in the history of the world that built its greatness on a service-based economy. Post-industrial is post-relevant.
Statement: Factory workers are "Joe Six-pack or Joe Lunchbox."
Message: These guys are rubes.
Rebuttal: My colleagues who work in our production department have real, honest-to-goodness names like Paul, Rich, Ron and Janet. They are highly skilled tradesmen and women. This is a derogatory, snide characterization. How would financial analysts and economists enjoy being called "Joe earnings report spinner" and "Joe dismal-scientist?"
Now here's a phrase that deserves to be back in use:
"The Arsenal of Democracy."
We used to use words and phrases like that to refer to our country. An arsenal is not only a place where weapons are stored but it is a place where things are made. The implicit meaning of the arsenal of democracy goes beyond its militaristic connotations. The phrase elegantly marries the idea that the ability to defend and advance our democratic principles is fundamentally tied to our nation's strength as a manufacturer. I would further add that the concept includes both military and consumer goods.
Every one of us who cares about and understands the importance of manufacturing and engineering to our nation's future needs to vigorously challenge these commonly accepted statements printed above that denigrate manufacturing and all who work in it. Begin by speaking up if the subject comes up among family or friends. Or bring it up yourself; let's get the debate going now.