Why do politicians hate answering questions so much? When there’s a new policy to be spruiked, an initiative to be rolled out, a campaign to be launched, we hear the same old formulae again and again. We watch interviewers try to get a straight answer out of politicians and receive nought but party-spun lines in response. Does anyone find this kind of repetition convincing? And why are straight talkers so dangerous in public life?
There’s a federal election rumbling somewhere in the not-too-distant future and it’s a safe bet that this year, as audiences become voters, we’ll be seeking shelter from a talking point bombardment. We asked Zoe Krupka, newmatilda.com‘s news therapist to analyse the talking points that dominate public discourse — and she asked us to think about how we all use them in our everyday lives.
Just last Saturday I was walking to the shops behind a man and his young daughter. She was earnestly explaining to him why she was not keen to go wherever it was they were going. When she was finished speaking, he responded, "Like I said, it’s just a matter of you getting used to it, it’s something new, that’s all."
This is a typical talking point response, designed to contain emotion, silence complaint and encourage compliance. It is the language of discipline and control.
I imagine that in this case it may also have been part of a united front response on behalf of her parents, perhaps of her teachers as well. It is language used with the best of intentions to prevent a breakdown in communication, but also preventing any breakthrough of meaning and understanding. If we can make sense of how we use this tool in everyday life, it may help us to understand why as a society we are bombarded with political talking points with such alarming frequency.
The "Stars Without Makeup" editions of so-called women’s magazines are some of their biggest selling issues. These photo spreads are not about making us feel that celebrities are just like us, blotchy and human, they are an attempt to separate the "truly" beautiful from the fraudulent.
Like the mask of makeup, we have made veiled communication by politicians the only acceptable form of public discourse. Perhaps we are also fascinated and appalled by the evidence of hesitation, stumbling and imperfection in our political leaders.
I was listening to the head of the National Union of Students, Carla Drakeford, the other day and found myself thinking, "Goodness, that’s a lot of ‘ums’ young lady." This line of thinking is really only one step away from suggesting a media coach. She was not at that moment speaking in talking points. She was answering the actual question asked of her, and attempting to provide an actual answer. Extraordinary. It stood out like a sore thumb or an unwaxed leg.
It’s important to remember that talking points do have meaning, as all tools do. In this case the meaning has more to do with the concealed or subliminal discussion. If language is a mediator between ourselves and the world, then to understand the way language is used helps us to understand something about the world of the speaker.
When I am giving you a carefully prepared series of quotable sound bites that are repeated with only subtle variations by my colleagues at any opportunity, what am I saying about my world and my view of your place in it? Partly I am saying that the most important quality of my world in this moment, is that you and I are kept separate from each other. I am maintaining the illusion that we are not connected as people, only as objects that either can be moved or will resist movement.
I am also saying that this is a game and my object is to win and to do so I must win you over. But we must not speak of this as a game, or reveal that my desire to win it is my primary need in our communication. So my talking points will be emotive, about you and not me — and if they’re good, they’ll appear to be close to your area of interest and will sound sincere. "I’d love to come to your party, I know it’s really important to you, I just don’t feel well enough to do the specialness of the occasion justice." Translation: "I hate parties. I don’t want to come."
Late one night last week, the poor bored little dog across the street was still barking after a long day of more of the same. I noticed myself preparing what were in effect talking points as I walked down the street to knock on the door.
I was going through a process that moved away from my own needs and experience, to those more persuasive arguments that would have the most likelihood of getting my desired result of sleep and an end to the torture of a small animal. I also found myself hoping that my neighbours would back me up and say the same things as me, that they would saturate the media on the topic of barking dogs in the neighbourhood. I realised that I was considering this approach because I had given up hope of an honest exchange; I was assuming the dog’s owner would be hostile to my cause and I was worried my own words might be used against me.
The meaning of dialogue is to talk our way through something together. What I’m describing here, the imagined use of tactical talking points with my unknown but pre-judged neighbour, is the opposite of this. It is instead a strategic communication to a depersonalised object. There is no possibility here of relationship, only of veiled threats and potential compliance. (By the time I had reached his front door, knocked and not been answered, I was, however, ready for dialogue. The dog was only too happy to oblige by coming up to the gate and letting me pat her belly.)
Talking points are also used in families to cover painful truths. Uncle Frank is a "character", and this description, used by everyone in the family, conceals the more painful reality of his alcoholism. The repetition of family monikers creates such opacity over time that it becomes almost impossible to see beyond them. In fact this sort of linguistic repetition can often be used to hide exactly those frailties we most want to conceal from others. It takes an outsider who doesn’t know the rules to break the spell by describing what they see. This can sometime give us a new language with which to experience our world. "Geez, your uncle Frank can really put it away."
The problem with moving away from commoditised discussion is that it becomes more and more difficult to make ourselves understood, because when we change the discourse we are still talking in the same context. We end up standing out for not being on message and receiving added or undeserved credence for our "realness" like Barnaby Joyce — or we are discounted entirely as if we are speaking another language, which of course we are.
As Noam Chomsky said, "Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune."
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