Enough Said: What’s gone wrong with the language of politics
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TEN years ago, Mark Thompson, then Director General of the BBC, delivered the inaugural Theos lecture, on religion and the media. In the ensuing Q&A, I asked him whether, as Ben Elton had recently claimed, the BBC treated Islam differently from Christianity. He gave a thoughtful and honest response, largely confirming Elton’s claim.
His response was picked up, somewhat simplified and amplified, by the Telegraph and the Mail the next day, and then appeared on the front page of the Star the day after, under the odious headline “BBC Boss puts Muslims before You!” A better example of what’s gone wrong with our public language would be hard to find.
A decade on, now as CEO of the New York Times, Thompson has brought his considerable experience to bear on this problem. The result is readable and reasonable, an analysis that is, to coin a phrase, fair and balanced, if a little scattergun in its approach.
Thompson’s central contention is that “the crisis of our politics is a crisis of political language,” as the best vehicle we have for securing our common life has been systematically eviscerated over the last two generations. Denied complexity, conditionality, and uncertainty, starved of generosity and humility, crushed into sound-bites and slogans — the way we communicate now serves to divide and enrage far more than it does to unify and inspire.
There is something of the chicken and the egg to this analysis. Is it, as Thompson contends, our impoverished and corrupted public language that is dividing and degrading our common life, or is it our impoverished and corrupted common life that is degrading our public language?
Of course, the answer is both. Thompson spends at least as much time exploring how politics and media have served to diminish our rhetoric as he does in analysing that rhetoric itself. The result is a stronger book, which is as much at home with Aristotle, Orwell, and even Wittgenstein as it is with BBC culture and the rise of Trump.
Moreover, the breadth precludes any glib or narrow answers. Politicians have over-promised, spokesmen have spun, media outlets have simplified and then exaggerated, their business models have collapsed, and social media have complicated, narrowed, and personalised channels of communication into a series of echo-chambers. The cumulative result is a noisy and often aggressive cacophony in which everyone and, therefore, no one is to blame.
Thompson does not despair. His final chapter advises readers to “Keep Calm But Don’t Carry On,” offering admirably direct and focused advice to his various audiences. Such clarity notwithstanding, however, one is not left full of confidence.
Ultimately, the only thing that will reconstruct our public language and culture is a series of acts of genuine humility, even self-sacrifice: politicians’ under-promising, or admitting that they don’t know, or that they got it wrong; the media’s conscious avoidance of the sensational (that will increase circulation) in favour of the considered (that won’t); punters’ paying more for content and restraining themselves when online; and a toning down of the rhetoric by everyone. Given the success of the populist rhetoric we have heard and seen this year, it’s a brave person who will bet on this kind of reformation in 2017.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos.