Why is political debate conducted at such a low level these days? In Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics, former director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, suggests that politicians themselves (think of the “spin” industry surrounding Tony Blair’s administrations), the media, with its relentless 24-hour cycle of news and commentary, and the public at large, less subservient these days than in the past, have all contributed to the current crisis.
Thompson, (a Catholic, educated by Jesuits at Stonyhurst) makes a powerful plea to bring back the proper study of “rhetoric”, which he defines as “the study of the theory and practice of public language.” His guide is Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, with its analysis of “ethos”, “pathos”, “exaggeration” and all the other linguistic elements that go into public speech-making.
Politicians still use Aristotle’s timeless rhetorical devices; the difference today is that they lack a common language that is understood by everyone. “A healthy public language”, Thompson reflects, “knits public and political leaders together [leading] to better and more widely supported policy decisions.” When did this last happen; during the war?
Thompson believes that the changing nature of western politics, with its growing divisions between the far-Left and the far-Right, is a factor in the breakdown of shared language. There is also a widening gap between the language of the experts and the public at large. And there is the battle between “rationalists” and “authenticists”: between those who base their arguments on reason and evidence and those who emphasise honesty of emotion and feelings.
The author provides thoughtful and scholarly analyses of several famous political speeches by their exponents, such as Thatcher, Blair, Hitler, Reagan and Churchill. For example, “Reagan’s genius for seizing the moment encompassed many rhetorical styles. There is the old showman at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987: “Mr Gorbachev – tear down this wall!”
Where Thompson offers suggestions to improve the low level of public discourse he is less convincing. After all, behind public language lie individuals with their private beliefs and convictions – and in many areas, unlike the past, these have ceased to share any common ground. In Benedict XVI’s phrase, we live in an age of “the dictatorship of relativism” or, as Thompson puts it, today everything is “one more opinion”. He quotes Alastair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue: “There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreements in our culture.”
Two subjects well illustrate this last statement. On abortion Thompson raises the conflict in fairness between “a woman’s right to choose” and a baby’s “right to life”. On same-sex marriage he thinks “the exclusion of gays [from civil marriage] raised a simple matter of fairness: if one pair of consenting adults is allowed to get married, why not another?”
He concludes with the advice which some might find slightly patronising: “Open your ears. Use your own good judgement. Think. Speak. Laugh. Cut through the noise.” But the “noise” for many people is now a Babel of conflicting voices, mutually uncomprehending. There is not much to laugh about.
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