A brilliant examination of the public language used nowadays to discuss important issues.
Things to remember:
- Logos – in rhetoric, the argument/appeal to reason
- Ethos – the character and authority of the speaker
- Pathos – how it chimes with the audience
Political language and rhetoric today no longer attempt to explain to voters the choices facing the country; they have become “not an aid but a stumbling block in the path to understanding”.
This degradation of language stems from a combination of:
- news broadcasts getting shorter and more jump-cut, with no time for deeper explanation;
- populist, changeable politicians (Berlusconi is an early example) who don’t actually have that many ideas to expound but still need the votes;
- breakdown in post-war consensus politics in the late 1970s, which gave rise to less temperate language;
- micro-management of communication strategy, which leaves no space for authentic discussion;
- increasing mistrust of and contempt for politicians, whether justifiable or not;
- advertising techniques being used to “sell” policies – e.g. the “Labour isn’t working” poster from 1978 by Saatchi and Saatchi – which bypass explication in favour of a direct hit.
There are tensions between evidence-based policy making and “retail politics”; rationalism and authenticity.
Reading recently about the importance of masses of data for improving AI, I was struck by Thompson’s contention that media professionals obsessively check social media to see what is trending – i.e. what works – and thus there is a kind of natural selection of words and phrases.
There no longer seems to be a rational public language to debate matters. Free speech in a liberal democracy conflicts with cultural sensitivity, matters of conscience or claims of divine revelation.