The belief that public debates are being dumbed down is not new. It usually arises from a misunderstanding of what is involved in communicating with non-specialist audiences. At the same time, we should give serious attention to the pernicious effects of language that is employed to make the user look serious and important. Most people do not analyse major events in the world around them in detail. Instead, they base their judgments on limited information, gut instinct and random factors like the state of the economy or even the weather. Most people are not much concerned with the world beyond their immediate circle of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. They generally think only about problems that they have some part to play in solving. They are not interested in spending their free time agonising about complex and remote issues. In Evelyn Waugh’s 1937 satire Scoop, a journalist explains that ‘newspapers are written for people who aren’t interested in anything’. Waugh meant that the principal audience for a newspaper is not made up of experts and serious students, but people looking for some vicarious involvement with ‘exciting’ events like wars and coups in exotic locations. Since 1937, of course, television has become the medium of popular audience choice. With television has come the proliferation of advertising, and the emergence of the message-soaked environment we now inhabit. Advertising gets a thorough working over in another novel from the 1930s, George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Orwell includes this vituperative observation: ‘the public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket’. The public relations profession has also grown rapidly over the second half of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, many of its practices are tailor made for a world of television and advertising. In particular, the use of 15 second grabs, the continuous repetition of a basic idea, and the discipline of staying ‘on message’. At best, the creation of messages for a communications campaign gives clarity and structure to what might otherwise be an unwieldy spray of information and arguments. It helps the client stand out in a very cluttered message environment. Well-formulated messages can provide a real service to an audience; just as a well-written piece of journalism can make complex ideas accessible to the non-specialist. At its best, public relations, like the news media, plays the socially useful role of intermediary. The problem comes when messages are used to stifle and distort, rather than to promote the flow of information and comment. This became Orwell’s lasting concern – the politically corrosive impact of distorted notions (like ‘War is Peace’), repeated endlessly in simplistic formulations that are designed to undermine our ability to critically evaluate the ideas they represent. For instance, it is disturbing today to hear a US President explaining complex international situations with Wild West imagery, because it encourages people to believe that the world’s problems can be solved by ‘kicking butt’ or ‘standing tough’. Worse still, it trivialises death and human suffering to the level of entertainment, which dehumanises us all. In his recent book Death Sentence, Australian writer Don Watson gives us an update of Orwell’s classic 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. Watson expresses concern that the language of managerialism “ ‘we begin by paving the way and then we get enhanced (and more enhanced “ four enhances in fifty words), and commitment on which we deliver, and flexible and efficient and options, and it is all done, of course, as we move forward‘ – is infesting public language and deadening our capacity to engage in meaningful discussion. As Watson observes: ‘Democracy depends upon plain language. It depends upon common understanding. We need to feel safe in the assumption that words mean what they are commonly understood to mean. Deliberate ambiguities, slides of meaning, obscure, incomprehensible or meaningless words poison the democratic process by leaving people less able to make informed or rational decisions. They erode trust. Depleted language always comes with a depleted democracy: the language of undemocratic systems is proof enough of this. Where language is forced into unnatural shapes the body politic is ugly.’ It is counterproductive to try to address the dumbing down of public debate by using more of what Watson calls ‘obfuscation, pomposity and doublespeak’. Only the clarity and simplicity of ordinary language can lead to better communication.
Words are Bullets, Richard Denniss, New Matilda, 7th June, 2005
The Case for Flat Taxes, The Economist, 14th April, 2005
Flat is Beautiful, The Economist, 3rd May, 2005
The Burden of Complexity, The Economist, 14th April, 2005.
A Promising Alternative, The Economist, 27th November, 2004
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