It was with some trepidation that I embarked upon this piece. Language is complex. Embedded in the language we use is a constellation of concepts, ideas, beliefs, facts, prejudices, and biases. Teasing out these elements is a formidable task.
It was therefore with keen anticipation that I tuned in to Joseph Kahn giving The 2017 Andrew Olle Media Lecture
on ABC TV, hoping for some inspiration. I was underwhelmed with what I experienced.
I had anticipated that the managing editor of no less than The New York Times
would deliver an electrifying address to honour our own Andrew Olle. Instead, I found it rather drab. Having now read the transcript
though, I realize that there was more substance to his lecture than I had initially perceived. It must have been his pedestrian delivery that influenced my perception.
As anticipated, early in his lecture he focused on ‘fake news’, which the President of the United States has accused his paper, along with most of the US media, of perpetrating. When he deems news to be ‘fake’, Donald Trump tweets wildly and angrily to condemn it.
So let’s begin this dissertation about the ugly language of politics with consideration of ‘fake news’.
Kahn began: ‘The good news is that much of the concern about “fake news” is, to put a fine point on it, fake.’ He asserts that ‘President Trump seized on rising alarm about actual fake news circulating on the Internet…and turned it into a campaign against reliable providers of real news…a strategy that comes directly from the pages of Orwell or Kafka.’
Kahn went on to define ‘fake news’ as 'a piece of content that takes the form of a news story but has little or no basis in reported fact. It is created by someone fully aware of its lack of factual basis with the express purpose of going viral, either to achieve some political or social purpose or to earn money for the author. Or both.'
He quoted a couple of instances: "Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” shared nearly 1 million times on Facebook, and “WikiLeaks Confirms Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS”, shared nearly 800,000 times. These are actual examples, albeit gross, of ‘fake news’.
Kahn’s definition consigns ‘fake news’ to the category of deliberate lying for political, social, or economic advantage. Let’s take that as a working definition.
Of course, some of what is branded as ‘fake news’, particularly by Donald Trump, does not fit that definition. Trumps labels as fake news anything with which he disagrees or which criticizes him, irrespective of the truth of the matter.
Which brings us to the vexed issue of what is ‘truth’. We all know that politicians lie. They do so over and again, often knowingly, occasionally inadvertently, sometimes in the form of ‘white lies’, while sometimes they simply distort the truth or leave out important elements.
It would be satisfying if we could clearly define these versions of lying, these attempts to bend the truth, but anyone who dares to venture into the philosophical jungle of what is truth and what is not, has to be willing to struggle with the learned writings of philosophers, who through the ages have contributed to our understanding of ‘truth’.
If you need any convincing about the complexity of this exercise, glance quickly through Wikipedia’s treatment of ‘Truth’
. You will see a variety of theories about truth in a number of domains, theories dating back to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Dig a little deeper and you will discover Spinoza, Leibniz, GWF Hegel, FH Bradley, Otto Neurath, Carl Hempel, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. If you were interested in the thoughts of ecclesiastical philosophers who struggled with the meaning of truth you would read the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, even Sigmund Freud. If you were to delve into truth in the field of science you would read the works of Karl Popper and Thomas S Kuhn who have profound thoughts about the nature of scientific truth.
The purpose of this piece is not to imitate the philosophers of old, but to present a home-spun analysis of the language of politics and the way it is used to portray reality with fidelity or, more often than not, to distort reality to the advantage of the author, an exercise that attracts the euphemism ‘spin’
The genesis of less-than-truthful statements is the need or desire to present a picture that advantages the author. In plain language, it is an act of dishonesty that allows self-interest to override factual reality.
Let me give some examples of how truth is distorted in political discourse:
Malcolm Roberts, recently extruded from the Senate, insisted repeatedly that: ‘There is no empirical evidence to support the claim that the globe is warming’. This statement is wrong. There is a mountain of supporting evidence. Is the evidence absolutely conclusive? No. As Karl Popper, one of the 20th century's greatest philosophers of science pointed out half a century ago, scientific theories can be refuted
as contrary evidence accumulates, but they can never be proved
absolutely. This is why scientists propose their theories in probabilistic terms. Thus climate scientists do not make absolute predictions; they point to the 97% consensus that anthropogenic global warming is occurring. This laudable scientific reticence allows people like Roberts, Tony Abbott and other climate deniers to assert: ‘The science of global warming is not settled’; language that promotes doubt among skeptics, which of course it is designed to do.
Much of the untruthfulness of political language is intended to create doubt. For decades the tobacco lobby spread doubt about the cancer-inducing effects of smoking. It took ages to negate the doubts about the causal link between asbestos and mesothelioma, doubts that had been spread by the asbestos industry.
Contemporaneously, we are witnessing doubts about same sex marriage being spread by the Australian Christian Lobby and the ‘Vote No’ lobby. By annexing irrelevant issues to marriage equality, Abbott was able to say: ‘And I say to you, if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom, and freedom of speech, vote no. If you don’t like political correctness, vote no – because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.’ Others have linked the issue to the ‘Safe Schools Program’ by insisting that inappropriate sexual concepts would be mandated for all students if same-sex marriage were to be legislated. You can read the gory details here
. This strategy is designed to create uncertainty, which history shows is a potent deterrent to voting ‘Yes’ in any referendum or survey.
Another way of distorting the truth is to supply only part of the reality.
Take the Adani mine. Proponents – owners and supporters alike – insist that 10,000 jobs will be generated if Adani develops the Carmichael coal deposits in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. Yet one of Adani’s own experts, Jerome Fahrer
, puts the figure at only 1,464, and even that number is tipped to be but temporary. But the larger number is still being touted today during the Queensland election campaign. This is outright dishonesty; its purpose is purely to gain political advantage by attracting votes from jobs-hungry Queenslanders. Moreover, mine planners insist that robots will do much of Adani’s work, even drive its coal trains!
A classic parallel strategy is declining to answer the question. Politicians avoid the risky responsibility of owning up by using the well-tried Joh Bjelke Petersen technique of ‘feeding the chooks’. Avoiding the question with his favourite expression: “Don’t you worry about that”, Joh would proceed to trot out his three pre-determined talking points, which often bore no relation to the question. Contemporary politicians are not usually as blatant as was Joh, but they nevertheless avoid answering the difficult questions by talking about less troublesome issues, much to the anger and frustration of good journalists seeking the facts.
Media minders brief them to mimic Joh by circumnavigating the question, sliding up side roads, and heading to a different destination. It is obvious what they are doing, even the less discerning see though them, yet they do it over and again, all the time diminishing their stature in the eyes of the voters to the point of being thoroughly despised. Why do they debase political discourse so flagrantly when being regarded as credible to their electorate is their raison d'être
To sum up, politicians avoid telling the truth by telling lies deliberately or unintentionally, creating doubt about the veracity of political positions they oppose, supplying only some of the facts, and avoiding answering the questions the media ask. However they are cloaked, these strategies are dishonest, deceptive, misleading and unworthy of those who are prominent in public life. They diminish both the propagator and the audience, and bring into further disrepute those who use them.
Before this piece becomes too long, let’s consider another aspect of the ugly language of politics – the words politicians use to humiliate their opponents.
Starting with international diplomacy, what is to be gained by using pejorative language when what we all want is the preservation of the fragile global ‘peace’ that now exists, perhaps but temporarily. Of course there are wars going on – in Syria, in parts of the Middle East, and in Africa – and there is civil disruption in Spain, Turkey, and some African nations. But there are dangerous potential hotspots that could explode precipitously if mishandled. Take North Korea.
Kim Jong-un is an erratic leader, driven by an entrenched belief that the Kim dynasty has divine authority over the whole of the Korean peninsula. Guided by the official state ideology of Juche
, Kim believes that it is his responsibility as current leader in the dynasty to safeguard his nation against all threats, and to reunite it with South Korea. Whilst other leaders may sneer at this entrenched belief, it is a reality that explains much of Kim’s behaviour.
What then is to be gained by the media always referring to North Korea as “a rogue nation”, and Donald Trump deriding Kim with derogatory language such as “The Little Rocket Man”? Of course Kim retaliates by labelling Trump’s utterances as “the sound of a barking dog”. Is that language likely to curb antagonism or inflame it? You know the answer. So why use it, no matter how appropriate people like Trump believe it to be? Is he spoiling for a fight with a nuclear-armed adversary, whose stability he doubts?
Moving closer to home, what is the value of the pejorative language politicians use against each other, so flagrantly exhibited in Question Time? What does Bill Shorten expect to achieve when he addresses acerbically worded questions to Malcolm Turnbull? He knows what to expect. Turnbull will respond as if he were at the Bar with flamboyant personal invective that flays Shorten and his party. He always turns the question against Shorten, sneers at what he sees as Shorten’s inadequacies, condemns him and Labor for any difficulties he finds himself in, no matter how far back in history he has to reach.
When challenged with a question about the dilapidated state of the NBN, Turnbull laid all the blame at Labor’s feet for leaving him a “disastrous train wreck”, disregarding the fact that Labor’s original FTTP design would have given this nation the NBN it needs, and that Abbott’s instruction to then Communications Minister Turnbull to “demolish the NBN” resulted in its degradation with a multi-technology mix and its FTTN design with ageing copper to the premises. The mess we are in is entirely of Turnbull’s making, but he blames Labor. A pointed cartoon portrayed Turnbull sitting in a badly damaged car saying “I’ve had this car for four years; but it was the previous owner that smashed it up”.
Turnbull is eloquent, but instead of using his words elegantly, as he did at the Beersheba celebrations, he uses derogatory sneering words sarcastically aimed at his adversaries. In doing so he demeans himself and depreciates still further the ugly language of politics.
Turnbull is not alone. The habitual propensity of politicians to blame their opponents and absolve themselves from any responsibility diminishes them in the eyes of the electorate, which therefore consigns them to the gutter in which they flounder.
People are sick and tired of adversarial politics, sick and tired of the invective that politicians hurl at one another, sick and tired of always shifting responsibility for failure to others, sick and tired of opponents scarcely ever being able to agree, sick and tired of politicians’ abusive schoolyard behaviour. It is their language, propelled by their habitual disdain of everything their opponents do and say, that sticks in the craw of voters, who place them as low in the social pecking order as used car salesmen.
If only politicians could elevate their oratory to that of statesmen, if only they could discard ugly language and instead use the language of those who really care, they just might drag their profession out of the linguistic cesspool they now inhabit, and attain the lofty height of respected, creditable advocates focussed solely on improving the lot of those who elected them to serve, always determined to pursue the common good, and put aside the self interest that motivates too many of them, day after disappointing day.