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On the Demise of Our Public Language

You are sick to death with the unrelenting abuse of language in public life.

· 6 min read
On the Demise of Our Public Language

A review of Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?, by Mark Thompson. Vintage (September 7, 2017) 432 pages.

You dislike the revolution in party-political communications ushered in by New Labour in the 1990s – though you may console yourself with the fact that it prompted Armando Iannucci to produce his best work. You are sick to death with the unrelenting abuse of language in public life. You nervously watch the fortunes of European nativist politicians and you appreciate the significance of the election of Trump. You look to media and news and current affairs to help you to make sense of public language, replete as it is with instances of hocus-pocus, weasel words, sleight of hand, euphemisms, bare-faced lying, and a battery of other techniques which debase public life. You shake your fist at the radio and television when you feel that broadcasters are falling down on the job – such is the importance of their role. You know that Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language is a classic study of the nexus between the two, but you are aware of how the world has changed so much since Orwell wrote it, and that, alas, it doesn’t cut the mustard now. You wish someone would write an accessible and insightful study of language and politics today. Mark Thompson’s Enough Said might well be the book you have been waiting for.

Thompson’s ur-text is The Art of Rhetoric, in which Aristotle discusses the constituent features of rhetoric before proceeding to discuss three types. For Aristotle, rhetoric consists of logos (dialectic or pure argument), pathos (the speaker’s ability to sense the audience’s mood and “work it”, in Thompson’s description), and ethos (the power of the character and integrity of the speaker), and he advocates a balance between these elements in public language. Of the three kinds of rhetoric, deliberative rhetoric is the language suited to politics – forensic and demonstrative rhetoric are for other occasions.

Against the backdrop of disillusionment with mainstream politicians, the rise of the ‘anti-politician,’ the burgeoning of ‘communications,’ and a media eco-system that is more competitive than ever, Thompson does justice to a number of dilemmas currently faced by politicians and broadcasters. But, more interestingly, he also examines unmistakable trends in politics and media which represent causes for concern. Four striking contentions, shaped by Aristotle’s thinking, emerge over the course of the book’s remarkable main chapters.

First, Thompson characterizes today’s rhetoric as speech in which logos is sacrificed at the altars of ethos and pathos. Today’s ‘anti-politicians’ are guilty of this, but this tendency already has an extended history: New Labour and ‘spin’ are discussed in terms of these conceptions, and in one section, Thompson traces it back to Reagan, although balance still inheres in Reagan’s rhetoric. Second, he argues that political parties, whether they are in power or in opposition, often use the language of campaigning throughout terms of office. Third, many of today’s politicians are ‘authenticists.’ It is authenticism that separates, say, Tony Blair from Donald Trump: although both place a premium on pathos and ethos, the anti-politician discards focus groups and aims for a less mediated authentic effect – though that may of course may be the result of just as much micro-management of communications (it’s all smoke-and-mirrors). And fourth, rather than conducting our affairs in deliberative rhetoric, the invasion of ‘marketing-speak’ into political rhetoric means that, more and more often, we hear a form of demonstrative rhetoric when a politician orates.

It goes without saying that the media should somehow help us to process political acts of persuasion: politicians speak to us through the media, but news and current affairs programmes have the power to filter, reject, refine and so on. But Thompson alerts us to a number of dangers in this domain as well. Across a number of chapters, he provides us with a history of the process whereby sources of news have been denatured. That history begins in his account with television news coverage in the United States in the 1980s, when news was “shortened and simplified.” The age of digital journalism only exacerbates a decline in such programmes. ‘Legacy publishers’ need to compete with all manner of alternate news sources against a background of far greater choice, and as a result they have been unable to stick fully to the old somewhat paternalistic practice of generating ‘serious-minded’ content. Across the board, “Headlines, brief summaries, lists, and other formats which can be absorbed in seconds” is the new norm. Stories are “maximal.” Logos gives way to ethos. And what dialectic remains is more doxa (opinion) than episteme (knowledge), especially on Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere, “a limitless marketplace for doxa.”

The Prison-House of Political Language
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Today we are rightly concerned about how filter bubbles place us in gated communities of thought; like Alasdair MacIntyre, whom he cites, Thompson concludes that such bitter opposition stems in the first instance from other historical factors. But, of course, so much of this opposition is played out in digital debate, where it is exacerbated. And logos stands no chance under such conditions: “Hatred and rage take many forms on the Web but all share a contempt for traditional dialectical argument.” Moreover, under the heading of the intensification of the news cycle, we learn about the howlround, wherein opinions expressed on digital platforms shape the entire news eco-system: the legacy publishers (such as the BBC) keep an eye on what’s trending and publish articles about it; those articles then do the rounds and feed into more doxa on social platforms, etc. News only becomes more brash as the wheel turns: Thompson notes that such exchanges often reach the level of out-and-out “vitriol.” On another level, Thompson’s concerns all boil down to words losing their meanings in the maelstrom. Reversing the usual cause-and-effect pattern, he warns readers that the abuse of public language may lead to damage to the foundations of our political culture.

Of course, the media is not our last line of defence: the individual is. And so the big question is: what chance does the individual stand when faced with politicians of this ilk and a media eco-system so altered? Thompson does commit to the conclusion that people who participate in democracy “often do so on the basis of a distorted view of reality,” which is far too lacking in nuance. But the central drive of his study involves faith in the individual and a rejection of the conclusions of “cultural pessimists.”

At least two factors provide him with grounds for optimism. One is more of a hope, and therefore perhaps less persuasive. This is the idea that a new kind of rhetoric might be able to emerge before long, in which we have a balance of the three constituent elements of rhetoric: such language would represent a new language of “critical persuasion,” writes Thompson. The other, more valuable focus amounts to a conceptualization of the personal resources that individuals have, and here Thompson turns once more to the ancient world for inspiration. We can scrutinize rhetorical claims in relation to the information we have and the life experience we have accumulated. “The Greeks,” Thompson remarks, “called this faculty phronesis, a form of practical wisdom or judgement which they came to distinguish from sophia, the wisdom they associated with scientific and abstract knowledge.”

The book concludes with examinations of how language is faring in the three areas of public debate: how we speak about war, how we talk about science, and the debate over freedom of speech itself – the third of these represents a magisterial defence of freedom of expression, though it is a defence which comes with at least one conventional qualification. In his conclusion, Thompson sets out a number of modest proposals regarding what we can do about the demise of our public language, and an additional chapter, appended to the paperback edition, discusses global events of late 2016 and early 2017, which followed the publication of the hardback, especially the election of Donald Trump.

But the heart of this book is represented by its first eight chapters (along with parts of “The Abolition of Public language,” where the focus is free speech), which outline the author’s vision of what has happened to our discourse. Having read through Thompson’s forensic analysis, readers will feel equipped to understand today’s political language. And they will no doubt have already started thinking for themselves about how society should respond to our contemporary malaise.

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