A non-trivial issue


For Karl Kraus language and morality were inseparable, and misuse of language was in the nature of a sin or a crime.

This might seem to be an extreme view until your friend or a plumber misleads you or lies to you. When that happens we take language very seriously: the chances are we will quote his words back to him and point out the difference between what he said and what he did. People who are not normally interested in language will passionately debate the commonly agreed meaning of words and phrases, and like terriers hold to account anyone who has weaseled that meaning out of them.

It might not be a simple deceit — a case of saying one thing and doing another: it might be an almost imperceptible ambiguity, a deliberately opaque or obscure construction, a bit of cant or a cliché, one of those words, such as ‘values’ or ‘unAustralian’ or ‘quite frankly’, which have no concrete meaning.

The public language of our times is infected constantly with jargon and cant. The language has been drafted into the service of the information economy and the economy has replaced society: perhaps not totally as Margaret Thatcher imagined, but to a very large extent just the same. In the largest and smallest organisations, public sector and private, all levels of government, the military, the church, schools, health and community, everywhere, the language has been co-opted, hacked about, forced into shape. It is to the information economy what the assembly line was to the industrial economy. It is now something one implements as much as speaks. Thus one consultant, a master of Neuro-linguistic Programming and Spiral Dynamics, tells prospective clients that he can teach them how to ‘chunk and sequence information for optimum digestion’ and ‘become familiar with advanced language patterns and metaphors’.

Meanwhile as politics becomes more dependent on images and less dependent on words, and the media becomes a kind of giant toad that must be fed hourly, the politicians and their staff use the language as so much stuffing.

The effects of all this on democracy, on working life, on education and much else by which we judge the quality of life is considerable enough for the matter of language to become what Kraus, George Orwell and Toni Morrison (and Martin Amis and many others) have always said it was — a moral issue. A non-trivial issue.

The Nation columnist, Eric Alterman, last week referred to the ‘post truth political environment’ in which he said the US now lived. (Australians need look no further than David Marr’s and Marian Wilkinson’s Dark Victory). It’s not the first time Presidents and Prime Ministers have told lies, but I doubt if there has been a time when truth was so little valued and there were fewer penalties for lying. There has not been a time when a President added to the general debauch by making a virtue of his inability to say what he meant or compose a sentence that suggests he knows what he means. Ask him in a public debate what he thinks about education and he is likely to say anything. ‘Rarely is the question asked; What are our children learning?’ Or much worse the President reaches for a Bible and says this is all we need to know about raising children.

But of course lies aren’t new in politics. Hyperbole, spin, exaggeration, weasel words and cant are not new in politics. So how is Alterman’s ‘post truth political environment’ different from the environment in which Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, George Bush Snr and Clinton all lied? I think the answer is the language of the age.

Consider the description of the post 9/11 world as ‘the new normal’ and the ‘new paradigm’. Anyone who had read 20th century history or George Orwell should have been deafened by the alarms these words triggered. The new paradigm as Joan Didion points out, led quickly to ‘new thinking in the law of war’ as GWB put it in a memo someone wrote for him. That new thinking created the environment for ‘extreme interrogation’ which until then had been known in democracies as torture. ‘Extreme interrogation’, also as Didion points out, was required when, under the new paradigm, the interrogated person did not provide the interrogator with information that coincided with policy or belief in weapons of mass destruction for instance.

Truth itself became quite blatantly a very different commodity. Politicians and media people who had lied or misled said they had ‘misspoken’, or had others say it for them. And, unlike the famous Nixonism about statements being ‘no longer operative’ which was said only once, the term ‘misspoken’ was reiterated and used aggressively, as if the word ought to be at once accepted, and simply by uttering it all sin was washed away.

Another way, under the new paradigm, was to appeal to the greater wisdom of the people, or rather to their priorities, to their pragmatic self-interest, which is to say the ruling ideology. So John Howard batted away as wrong those allegations that he and his ministers had been told the stories about children overboard by the simple expedient of saying that, (a) his memory of events was different and (b) the people of Australia were not interested in things like that: things which — like the dispossession of native peoples — happened a long time ago. The people, he said, wanted to ‘move on’.

The same approach was taken to the matter of the WMD whose existence was the pretext for joining the Coalition and going to war in Iraq. When it was confirmed that they did not exist, the Prime Minister wanted to ‘move on’ and so, in their wisdom, did the people and so, if they wanted to win the election, would the Labor Party.

This approach to truth and accountability in politics is very like the approach employed in business. Substitute stakeholders for citizenry and you have it. All stakeholders are equal but some are more equal than others, and these stakeholders are not interested in the past, or the truth or justice or anything abstract. This is exactly the category in which you want to put any other competing stakeholders, including dead or dying stakeholders with diseases caused by exposure to the asbestos products from which other more equal stakeholders had once made nice profits. They want to ‘move on’ or up and if the company can do it by muttering pieties about corporate social responsibility, accountability and shareholder value, as if it is no more possible for one to be in conflict with the other than it is possible for public opinion to be in conflict with truth, justice and democracy, then ‘move on’ is what the company must do.

This Pilate-like slide from what is truth, to what is popular with voters or shareholders that count, is accompanied by a slide from what our leaders say they will do, or actually believe in, to portmanteau words of precisely zero meaning. Words such as ‘faith’ and ‘values’ and ‘belief’.

The Americans take it a little further than we do. They can’t say these words without their hands creeping up towards their hearts and their eyes up towards the flag that is always fluttering somewhere nearby. It is true that Tony Blair does a good British version in which effectively he says that because I believed it very strongly then and I am a person who believes very strongly always, it was, if not literally true, true in some degree or dimension where honour or integrity count for more than they do in the faithless world of my detractors.

In Australia it is simpler by far. You just sagely observe that the people are not interested, and leave John Faulkner and Margot Kingston to wrestle away on behalf of the handful of doctors’ wives who are. The rest of the Labor Party, you may be sure, will consult their focus groups and drop off quick smart. Occasionally one of them may cause embarrassment by having one of those brain seizures brought on by ancestral memories of political principle, and say — No, bugger it! The truth matters, the truth can’t be compromised, truth is absolute. But who would take him seriously? John Howard said the truth was absolute and couldn’t be compromised. It was just after he became Prime Minister. In the post truth environment who can tell the lying rodents from the others?

Still, we’ve still a little way to go before we catch up with American standards of regression. They have not only faith-based schools and faith-based radio and faith-based jails, now they also have faith-based national parks where you can buy guidebooks that tell visitors who don’t want to hear anything other than the news that the mountains, canyons and geysers were created in the six days described in Genesis and so were the grizzlies, raccoons and rattlers and all the other critters of Creation you see scampering around these parts.

If God can create mountains, sure as hell faith in Him is the best way to move them. You can liberate Iraq with Him just by saying you have. You can accomplish your mission just by saying Mission Accomplished. You can go on saying that this liberated Iraq will be a shining example of peace and progress long after the reality begins to show signs that you have just turned it into another Palestine, so long as you have faith. How can they ignore this reality? Just by saying that anyone who says different is ‘reality-based’. Same with homelessness, poverty, addiction, illiteracy, you say, as GWB does, you have ‘faith that faith will work in solving these problems’.

‘Language is made out of concrete things,’ Ezra Pound said. ‘General expressions made out of the non concrete, are not talk, not art, not creation.’ Graham Greene believed something similar about writing stories. Readers do not believe in characters or events constructed from abstractions. Clearly neither of these people understood the first thing about politics, not in the new paradigm at least. Because it turns out people just love hearing abstractions.

Take the very popular abstraction, ‘values’. In ordinary times it might seem strange that there should be so much talk of values at the same time as there is talk of ‘misspoke’ and ‘extreme interrogation’. But it is not strange in the new paradigm. Remember, when business begins talking about paradigm shifts and new paradigms they almost immediately begin talking in abstractions. Business talks in very little else these days. In the new political environment we get these abstractions from focus groups, we get, in particular, ‘values’. People say they want to get rich, and we put it down as a value. They say they want jobs for their kids; so we put that down as a value as well — a job-seeking value. Wanting a tax cut is a value. Wanting security from terrorists is a value. The Patriot Act is an expression of values. Values, you see, are whatever we say they are.

Howard and Latham took to values as well. We’ve seen it in the last few Labor leaders. They come out in the morning with their words strategised, their emotional cues lined up in their brains, talking about values and what Australian values are and how they will deliver on these values. And the prospect that life isn’t really like that, that people might enjoy a bit of character and spontaneity in their leaders never seems to occur to anybody. It did occur to parts of the American media, however: in apparent denial of all the evidence that he was the most carefully rehearsed President in history, a host of them began to say the citizenry was seeing the ‘President Unvarnished’.

Remember you heard it first — you can only hear it — through the media. And remember it was for the media that Kerry felt obliged to salute and say he was reporting for duty. And it was for the media that he went and lit up a few ducks and Cheney lit up 417 pheasants one morning.

The funny thing about values, faith, belief and many other modern political mantras is that they are just like the organisational mantras of these times. Politicians now deliver mission statements, and what is a mission statement but an exercise in the non concrete, a statement of irredeemably nebulous values. All spontaneity, lyricism, humour and reality are gone. What remains of the meaning of ‘truth’, ‘trust’, belief’ and ‘values’?

This is an extract from a talk given to the Melbourne Press Club Journalism Conference on 29 October 2004

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.