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Fri Dec 8, 2017, 07:01 AM

On the Demise of Our Public Language

You dislike the revolution in party-political communications ushered in by New Labour in the 1990s – though you may console yourself with the fact that it prompted Armando Iannucci to produce his best work. You are sick to death with the unrelenting abuse of language in public life. You nervously watch the fortunes of European nativist politicians and you appreciate the significance of the election of Trump. You look to media and news and current affairs to help you to make sense of public language, replete as it is with instances of hocus-pocus, weasel words, sleight of hand, euphemisms, bare-faced lying, and a battery of other techniques which debase public life. You shake your fist at the radio and television when you feel that broadcasters are falling down on the job – such is the importance of their role. You know that Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language is a classic study of the nexus between the two, but you are aware of how the world has changed so much since Orwell wrote it, and that, alas, it doesn’t cut the mustard now. You wish someone would write an accessible and insightful study of language and politics today. Mark Thompson’s Enough Said might well be the book you have been waiting for.

Thompson’s ur-text is The Art of Rhetoric, in which Aristotle discusses the constituent features of rhetoric before proceeding to discuss three types. For Aristotle, rhetoric consists of logos (dialectic or pure argument), pathos (the speaker’s ability to sense the audience’s mood and “work it”, in Thompson’s description), and ethos (the power of the character and integrity of the speaker), and he advocates a balance between these elements in public language. Of the three kinds of rhetoric, deliberative rhetoric is the language suited to politics – forensic and demonstrative rhetoric are for other occasions.

Against the backdrop of disillusionment with mainstream politicians, the rise of the ‘anti-politician,’ the burgeoning of ‘communications,’ and a media eco-system that is more competitive than ever, Thompson does justice to a number of dilemmas currently faced by politicians and broadcasters. But, more interestingly, he also examines unmistakable trends in politics and media which represent causes for concern. Four striking contentions, shaped by Aristotle’s thinking, emerge over the course of the book’s remarkable main chapters.

First, Thompson characterizes today’s rhetoric as speech in which logos is sacrificed at the altars of ethos and pathos. Today’s ‘anti-politicians’ are guilty of this, but this tendency already has an extended history: New Labour and ‘spin’ are discussed in terms of these conceptions, and in one section, Thompson traces it back to Reagan, although balance still inheres in Reagan’s rhetoric. Second, he argues that political parties, whether they are in power or in opposition, often use the language of campaigning throughout terms of office. Third, many of today’s politicians are ‘authenticists.’ It is authenticism that separates, say, Tony Blair from Donald Trump: although both place a premium on pathos and ethos, the anti-politician discards focus groups and aims for a less mediated authentic effect – though that may of course may be the result of just as much micro-management of communications (it’s all smoke-and-mirrors). And fourth, rather than conducting our affairs in deliberative rhetoric, the invasion of ‘marketing-speak’ into political rhetoric means that, more and more often, we hear a form of demonstrative rhetoric when a politician orates.

It goes without saying that the media should somehow help us to process political acts of persuasion: politicians speak to us through the media, but news and current affairs programmes have the power to filter, reject, refine and so on. But Thompson alerts us to a number of dangers in this domain as well. Across a number of chapters, he provides us with a history of the process whereby sources of news have been denatured. That history begins in his account with television news coverage in the United States in the 1980s, when news was “shortened and simplified.” The age of digital journalism only exacerbates a decline in such programmes. ‘Legacy publishers’ need to compete with all manner of alternate news sources against a background of far greater choice, and as a result they have been unable to stick fully to the old somewhat paternalistic practice of generating ‘serious-minded’ content. Across the board, “Headlines, brief summaries, lists, and other formats which can be absorbed in seconds” is the new norm. Stories are “maximal.” Logos gives way to ethos. And what dialectic remains is more doxa (opinion) than episteme (knowledge), especially on Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere, “a limitless marketplace for doxa.”


http://quillette.com/2017/12/05/demise-public-language/

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