Tag Archives: public language

Minding Our Public Language

Mark Thompson, Enough Said:

What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics 

          In Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics, Mark Thompson examines the role which “public language” — the language we use “when we discuss politics and policy, or make our case in court, or try to persuade anyone of anything else in a public context” (p.2) — plays in today’s cacophonous political debates.  Thompson, currently Chief Executive Officer of The New York Times and before that General Director of the BBC, contends that there is a crisis in contemporary democratic decision-making today that at heart is a crisis of political language.  Public language appears to be losing its power to explain and engage, thereby threatening the bond between people and politicians. “Intolerance and illiberalism are on the rise almost everywhere,” Thompson writes, and the way our public language has changed is an “important contributing and exacerbating factor” (p.297-98).

          Thompson seeks to revive the formal study of rhetoric as a means to understand and even reverse the contemporary crisis of public language.  Rhetoric is simply the “study of the theory and practice of public language” (p.2).  Rhetoric “helps us to make sense of the world and to share that understanding. It also teaches us to ‘pay heed’ to the ‘opposite side,’ the other” (p.361). Democracies need public debate and therefore competition in the mastery of public persuasion. Rhetoric, the language of explanation and persuasion, enables collective decision-making to take place.

        Across the book’s disparate parts, Thompson’s central concern is today’s angry and polarized political climate often referred to as “populist,” in which the word “compromise” has become pejorative, the adjective “uncompromising” is a compliment, and the “public presumption of good faith between opposing parties and factions” (p.97) seems to have largely evaporated.  Thompson recognizes that the current populist wave is founded upon a severe distrust of elites.  Given his highest-of-high-level positions at the BBC and The New York Times (along with a degree from Oxford University), Thompson is about as elite as one can become.  He thus observes from the top of a besieged citadel.  Unsurprisingly, Thompson brings a well-informed Anglo-American perspective to his observations, and he shines in pointing to commonalities as well as differences between Great Britain and the United States. There are occasional glances at continental Europe and elsewhere – Silvio Berlusconi’s rhetorical skills are examined, for example – but for the most part this is an analysis of public language at work in contemporary Britain and the United States.

          In the book’s first half, Thompson uses the terminology of classical rhetoric to frame an examination of what he considers the root causes of today’s crisis in public language. Among them are the impact of social media on political discourse and how the pervasive use of sales and marketing language has devalued public debate.  Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have given rise to a “Darwinian natural selection of words and phrases,” he writes, in which, “by definition, the only kind of language that emerges from this process is language that works. You hear it, you get it, you pass it on. The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius – a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill – is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art, but as algorithm” (p.187).  The use of language associated with sales and marketing serves further to give political language “some of the brevity, intensity and urgency we associate with the best marketing,” while stripping away its “explanatory and argumentative power” (p.191).

          In the second half, Thompson shifts way from applying notions of classical rhetoric to public debate and focuses more directly upon the debate itself in three settings: when scientific consensus confronts spurious scientific claims; when claims for tolerance and respect for racial, religious or ethnic minorities seek to override untrammeled freedom of expression; and when, after the unprecedented and still unfathomable devastation of the 20th century’s world wars, leaders seek to take their country into war.  Thompson’s analyses of these situations are lucid and clearheaded, but for all the common sense and good judgment that he brings to them, I found this section more conventional and less original than the book’s first half, and consequently less intriguing.

* * *

       Thompson starts with a compelling example to which he returns throughout the book, involving the once ubiquitous Sarah Palin and her rhetorical attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare. Before the ACA was signed into law, one Elizabeth McCaughey, an analyst with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, looked at a single clause among the 1,000 plus pages of the proposed legislation and drew the conclusion that the act required patients over a certain age to be counseled by a panel of experts on the options available for ending their lives. McCaughey’s conclusion was dead wrong. The clause merely clarified that expenses would be covered for those who desired such counseling, as proponents of the legislation made clear from the outset.

         No matter. Palin grabbed the ball McCaughey had thrown out and ran with it. In one of her most Palinesque moments, the one-term Alaska governor wrote on her Facebook page:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of heath care. Such a system is downright evil (p.4-5).

By placing the words “death panel” and “level of productivity in society” in quotation marks, Palin left the impression that she was quoting from the statute itself.  Thus presented, the words conjured up early 20th century eugenics and Nazi doctors at death camps.  To her supporters, Palin had uncovered “nothing less than a conspiracy to murder” (p.7).

        In the terminology of classical rhetoric, “death panel” was an enthymeme, words that might not mean much to a neutral observer but were all that Palin’s supporters needed to “fill in the missing parts of her argument to construct a complete critique of Obamacare” (p.30).   It had the power of compression, perfect for the world of Facebook and Twitter, and the effect of a synecdoche, in which the part stands for the whole.  Its words were prophetic, taking an imagined future scenario and presenting it as current reality.  Palin’s claim was symptomatic of today’s polarized political debate. It achieved its impact “by denying any complexity, conditionality or uncertainty,” building on a presumption of “irredeemable bad faith,” and rejecting “even the possibility of a rational debate” with the statute’s supporters (p.17).

        Thompson considers Palin’s rhetorical approach distinct in keys ways from that of Donald Trump.    Writing during the 2016 presidential campaign, Thompson observes that Trump had “rewritten the playbook of American political language” (p.80). Trumpian rhetoric avoids cleverness or sophistication:

There are no cunning mousetraps like the “death panel.” The shocking statements are not couched in witty or allusive language. His campaign slogan – Make America Great Again! – could hardly be less original or artful. Everything is intended to emphasize the break with the despised language of the men and women of the Washington machine. There is a wall between them and you, Trump seems to say to his audience, but I am on this side of the wall alongside you. They treat you as stupid, but you understand things far better than they do. The guarantee that I see the world as you do is the fact that I speak in your language, not theirs (p.79-80).

        Yet Thompson roots both Palin’s populism and that of Trump in a rhetorical approach that dates from the 18th century Enlightenment termed “authenticism,” a mode of expression that prioritizes emotion and simplicity of language, and purports to engage with the “lowliest members of the chosen community” (p.155).  To the authenticst, if something “feels true, then in some sense it must be true” (p.155).  Since the Enlightenment, authenticism has been in tension with “rhetorical rationalism,” which venerates fact-based arguments and empirical thinking.  Authenticism rises as trust in public leaders declines.   Authenticists take what their rationalist opponents regard as their most egregious failings, “fantasies dressed up as facts, petulance, tribalism, loss of control of one’s own emotions,” and “flip them into strengths.”  Rationalists may consider authenticism “pitifully cruel, impossible to sustain, downright crazy,” but it can be a compelling rhetorical approach for the “right audience in the right season” (p.356).

        Authenticism found the right audience in the right season in Brexit, Britain’s June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, with people voting for Brexit because they were “sick and tired of spin, prevarication and policy jargon” (p.351).   A single topic referendum such as Brexit, unlike a general election, requires a “minimum level of understanding of the issues and trade-offs involved,” Thompson writes. By this standard, the Brexit referendum should be considered a “disgrace” (p.347).  Those opposing Brexit had little to offer “in the way of positivity to counterbalance the threats; its Tory and Labour leaders seemed scarcely more enthusiastic about Britain’s membership [in] the EU than their opponents.  Their campaign was lackluster and low-energy.  They deserved to lose” (p.347).

        In understanding how classical rhetoric influences public debate, Thompson attaches particular significance to George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” the “best-known and most influential reflection on public language written in English in the twentieth century” (p.136).  Although Orwell claimed that his main concern in the essay was clarity of language, what he cared most about, Thompson contends, was the “beauty of language . . . Orwell associated beauty of language with clarity, and clarity with the ability of language to express rather than prevent thought and, by so doing, to support truthful and effective political debate” (p.143).  Orwell’s essay thus embodied the “classical understanding of rhetoric,” specifically the “ancient belief that the civic value of a given piece of rhetoric is correlated with its excellence as a piece of expression” (p.143).

* * *

      In the book’s second half, Thompson looks at the public debate over a host of contentious issues that have riveted the United Kingdom and the United States in recent years, beginning with the deference that democratic debate should accord to questionable scientific claims.  So-called climate skeptics, who challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, can make what superficially sounds like a compelling case that their views should be entitled to equal time in forums dedicated to the elaboration of public issues, such as those provided by the BBC or The New York Times.  Minority scientific views have themselves frequently evolved into accepted scientific understanding (one 19th century example was the underlying cause of the Irish potato famine, discussed here  in 2014 in my review of John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking).  Refusal to accord a forum for such views can easily be cast as a “cover up.”

         Thompson shows how members of Britain’s most distinguished scientific body, the Royal Society, once responded to public skepticism over global warming by becoming advocates, presenting the scientific consensus on the need for action in terms unburdened by the caution and caveats that are usually part of scientific explanation, and emphasizing the bad faith of climate change skeptics. Its efforts largely backfired. The more scientists sound like politicians with an agenda, the “less convincing they are likely to be” (p.211).   The same issue arose when a British medical researcher claimed to have a found connection between autism and measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations. The research was subsequently found to be fraudulent, but not before a handful of celebrities and a few politicians jumped aboard an anti-vaccination movement (including, in the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Donald Trump, when he was more celebrity than politician), with an uncountable number of parents opting not to have their children vaccinated.

       Thompson’s discussion of the boundaries of tolerance and free speech raises a similar issue: to what degree should democratic forums include those whose views are antithetical to democratic norms. While at the BBC, Thompson needed to decide whether the BBC would invite the British National Party (BNP), which flirted with Holocaust denial but had demonstrated a substantial following at the ballot box, to a broadcast that involved representatives of Britain’s major parties. In the face of strident opposition, Thompson elected to include the BNP representative and explains why here: the public “had the right to see him and listen to him responding to questions put to him by a studio audience itself made up of people like them. They did so and drew their own conclusions” (p.263).

       Thompson also delivers a full-throated rebuke to American universities that have disinvited speakers because students objected to their views.  The way to defeat extremists and their defenders, whether in faculty lounges or the halls of power, is simply to out-argue them, he contends.  Freedom of expression is best considered a right to be enjoyed “not just by those with something public to say but by everyone” (p.262-63), as a means by which an audience can seek to reach its own judgment. With a few exceptions like child pornography or incitement to violence, Thompson finds no support for the notion that suppressing ideas of which we disapprove is a better way to defeat them in a modern democracy than confronting and debating them in public.

       In a chapter entitled simply “War,” Thompson argues that war is today the greatest rhetorical test for a political leader:

To convince a country to got to war, or to rally a people’s courage and optimism during the course of that war, depends on your ability to persuade those who are listening to you to risk sacrificing themselves and their children for some wider public purpose. It is words against life and limb. [It includes the] need for length and detail as you explain the justification of the war; the simultaneous need for brevity and emotional impact; authenticity, rationality, authority; the search for a persuasiveness that does not – cannot— sound anything like marketing given the blood and treasure that are at stake” (p.219).

        Today, it is almost impossible for any war to be well received in a democracy, except in the very short term.  This is undoubtedly an advance over the days when war was celebrated for its gallantry and chivalry. But, drawing upon the opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States in the 1960s, and to Britain’s decision to join the United States in the second Iraq war in 2003, Thompson faults anti-war rhetoric for its tendency to assume bad faith almost immediately, to “omit awkward arguments or to downplay unresolved issues, to pretend that difficult choices are easy, to talk straight past the other side in the debate, to oversimplify everything” (p.254-55).

* * *

      Thompson does not see today’s populist wave receding any time soon. “One can believe that populism always fails in the end – because of the crudity of its policies, its unwillingness to do unpopular but necessary things, its underlying divisiveness and intolerance – yet still accept that it will be a political fact of life in many western countries for years to come” (p.363).  He ends by abandoning the measured, “this-too-shall-pass” tone that prevails throughout most of his wide-ranging book to conclude on a near-apocalyptic note.   A storm is gathering, he writes, which threatens to be:

greater than any seen since the global infernos of the twentieth century. If the first premonitory gusts of a global populist storm were enough to blow Britain out of Europe and Donald Trump into the White House, what will the main blasts do? If the foretaste of the economic and social disruption to come was enough to show our public language to be almost wholly wanting in 2016, what will happen when the hurricane arrives?” (p.364).

       Is there anything we can do to restore the power of public language to cement the bonds of trust between the public and its leaders?  Can rhetorical rationalists regain the upper hand in public debate? Thompson argues that we need to “put public language at the heart of the teaching of civics . . . We need to teach our children how to parse every kind of public language” (p.322).  Secondary school and university students need to know “how to listen, how to know when someone is trying to manipulate them, how to discriminate between good arguments and bad ones, how to fight their own corner clearly and honestly” (p.366).   This seems like a sensible starting place.  But it may not be sufficient to withstand the hurricane.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

January 18, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, British History, Intellectual History, Language, Politics