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The ugly language of politics

By Ad astra

It was with some trepidation that I embarked upon this piece. Language is complex. Embedded in the language we use is a constellation of concepts, ideas, beliefs, facts, prejudices, and biases. Teasing out these elements is a formidable task.

It was therefore with keen anticipation that I tuned in to Joseph Kahn giving The 2017 Andrew Olle Media Lecture on ABC TV, hoping for some inspiration. I was underwhelmed with what I experienced.

I had anticipated that the managing editor of no less than The New York Times would deliver an electrifying address to honour our own Andrew Olle. Instead, I found it rather drab. Having now read the transcript though, I realize that there was more substance to his lecture than I had initially perceived. It must have been his pedestrian delivery that influenced my perception.

As anticipated, early in his lecture he focused on ‘fake news’, which the President of the United States has accused his paper, along with most of the US media, of perpetrating. When he deems news to be ‘fake’, Donald Trump tweets wildly and angrily to condemn it.

So let’s begin this dissertation about the ugly language of politics with consideration of ‘fake news’.

Kahn began: ‘The good news is that much of the concern about “fake news” is, to put a fine point on it, fake.’ He asserts that ‘President Trump seized on rising alarm about actual fake news circulating on the Internet…and turned it into a campaign against reliable providers of real news…a strategy that comes directly from the pages of Orwell or Kafka.’

Kahn went on to define ‘fake news’ as ‘a piece of content that takes the form of a news story but has little or no basis in reported fact. It is created by someone fully aware of its lack of factual basis with the express purpose of going viral, either to achieve some political or social purpose or to earn money for the author. Or both.’

He quoted a couple of instances: “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” shared nearly 1 million times on Facebook, and “WikiLeaks Confirms Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS”, shared nearly 800,000 times. These are actual examples, albeit gross, of ‘fake news’.

Kahn’s definition consigns ‘fake news’ to the category of deliberate lying for political, social, or economic advantage. Let’s take that as a working definition.

Of course, some of what is branded as ‘fake news’, particularly by Donald Trump, does not fit that definition. Trumps labels as fake news anything with which he disagrees or which criticizes him, irrespective of the truth of the matter.

Which brings us to the vexed issue of what is ‘truth’. We all know that politicians lie. They do so over and again, often knowingly, occasionally inadvertently, sometimes in the form of ‘white lies’, while sometimes they simply distort the truth or leave out important elements.

It would be satisfying if we could clearly define these versions of lying, these attempts to bend the truth, but anyone who dares to venture into the philosophical jungle of what is truth and what is not, has to be willing to struggle with the learned writings of philosophers, who through the ages have contributed to our understanding of ‘truth’.

If you need any convincing about the complexity of this exercise, glance quickly through Wikipedia’s treatment of ‘Truth’. You will see a variety of theories about truth in a number of domains, theories dating back to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Dig a little deeper and you will discover Spinoza, Leibniz, GWF Hegel, FH Bradley, Otto Neurath, Carl Hempel, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. If you were interested in the thoughts of ecclesiastical philosophers who struggled with the meaning of truth you would read the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, even Sigmund Freud. If you were to delve into truth in the field of science you would read the works of Karl Popper and Thomas S Kuhn who have profound thoughts about the nature of scientific truth.

The purpose of this piece is not to imitate the philosophers of old, but to present a home-spun analysis of the language of politics and the way it is used to portray reality with fidelity or, more often than not, to distort reality to the advantage of the author, an exercise that attracts the euphemism ‘spin’.

The genesis of less-than-truthful statements is the need or desire to present a picture that advantages the author. In plain language, it is an act of dishonesty that allows self-interest to override factual reality.

Let me give some examples of how truth is distorted in political discourse:

Malcolm Roberts, recently extruded from the Senate, insisted repeatedly that: ‘There is no empirical evidence to support the claim that the globe is warming’. This statement is wrong. There is a mountain of supporting evidence. Is the evidence absolutely conclusive? No. As Karl Popper, one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers of science pointed out half a century ago, scientific theories can be refuted as contrary evidence accumulates, but they can never be proved absolutely. This is why scientists propose their theories in probabilistic terms. Thus climate scientists do not make absolute predictions; they point to the 97% consensus that anthropogenic global warming is occurring. This laudable scientific reticence allows people like Roberts, Tony Abbott and other climate deniers to assert: ‘The science of global warming is not settled’; language that promotes doubt among skeptics, which of course it is designed to do.

Much of the untruthfulness of political language is intended to create doubt. For decades the tobacco lobby spread doubt about the cancer-inducing effects of smoking. It took ages to negate the doubts about the causal link between asbestos and mesothelioma, doubts that had been spread by the asbestos industry.

Contemporaneously, we are witnessing doubts about same sex marriage being spread by the Australian Christian Lobby and the ‘Vote No’ lobby. By annexing irrelevant issues to marriage equality, Abbott was able to say: ‘And I say to you, if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom, and freedom of speech, vote no. If you don’t like political correctness, vote no – because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.’ Others have linked the issue to the ‘Safe Schools Program’ by insisting that inappropriate sexual concepts would be mandated for all students if same-sex marriage were to be legislated. You can read the gory details here.

This strategy is designed to create uncertainty, which history shows is a potent deterrent to voting ‘Yes’ in any referendum or survey.

Another way of distorting the truth is to supply only part of the reality.

Take the Adani mine. Proponents – owners and supporters alike – insist that 10,000 jobs will be generated if Adani develops the Carmichael coal deposits in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. Yet one of Adani’s own experts, Jerome Fahrer, puts the figure at only 1,464, and even that number is tipped to be but temporary. But the larger number is still being touted today during the Queensland election campaign. This is outright dishonesty; its purpose is purely to gain political advantage by attracting votes from jobs-hungry Queenslanders. Moreover, mine planners insist that robots will do much of Adani’s work, even drive its coal trains!

A classic parallel strategy is declining to answer the question. Politicians avoid the risky responsibility of owning up by using the well-tried Joh Bjelke Petersen technique of ‘feeding the chooks’. Avoiding the question with his favourite expression: “Don’t you worry about that”, Joh would proceed to trot out his three pre-determined talking points, which often bore no relation to the question. Contemporary politicians are not usually as blatant as was Joh, but they nevertheless avoid answering the difficult questions by talking about less troublesome issues, much to the anger and frustration of good journalists seeking the facts.

Media minders brief them to mimic Joh by circumnavigating the question, sliding up side roads, and heading to a different destination. It is obvious what they are doing, even the less discerning see though them, yet they do it over and again, all the time diminishing their stature in the eyes of the voters to the point of being thoroughly despised. Why do they debase political discourse so flagrantly when being regarded as credible to their electorate is their raison d’être?

To sum up, politicians avoid telling the truth by telling lies deliberately or unintentionally, creating doubt about the veracity of political positions they oppose, supplying only some of the facts, and avoiding answering the questions the media ask. However they are cloaked, these strategies are dishonest, deceptive, misleading and unworthy of those who are prominent in public life. They diminish both the propagator and the audience, and bring into further disrepute those who use them.

Before this piece becomes too long, let’s consider another aspect of the ugly language of politics – the words politicians use to humiliate their opponents.

Starting with international diplomacy, what is to be gained by using pejorative language when what we all want is the preservation of the fragile global ‘peace’ that now exists, perhaps but temporarily. Of course there are wars going on – in Syria, in parts of the Middle East, and in Africa – and there is civil disruption in Spain, Turkey, and some African nations. But there are dangerous potential hotspots that could explode precipitously if mishandled. Take North Korea.

Kim Jong-un is an erratic leader, driven by an entrenched belief that the Kim dynasty has divine authority over the whole of the Korean peninsula. Guided by the official state ideology of Juche, Kim believes that it is his responsibility as current leader in the dynasty to safeguard his nation against all threats, and to reunite it with South Korea. Whilst other leaders may sneer at this entrenched belief, it is a reality that explains much of Kim’s behaviour.

Image from The Mercury News

What then is to be gained by the media always referring to North Korea as “a rouge nation”, and Donald Trump deriding Kim with derogatory language such as “The Little Rocket Man”? Of course Kim retaliates by labelling Trump’s utterances as “the sound of a barking dog”. Is that language likely to curb antagonism or inflame it? You know the answer. So why use it, no matter how appropriate people like Trump believe it to be? Is he spoiling for a fight with a nuclear-armed adversary, whose stability he doubts?

Moving closer to home, what is the value of the pejorative language politicians use against each other, so flagrantly exhibited in Question Time? What does Bill Shorten expect to achieve when he addresses acerbically worded questions to Malcolm Turnbull? He knows what to expect. Turnbull will respond as if he were at the Bar with flamboyant personal invective that flays Shorten and his party. He always turns the question against Shorten, sneers at what he sees as Shorten’s inadequacies, condemns him and Labor for any difficulties he finds himself in, no matter how far back in history he has to reach.

When challenged with a question about the dilapidated state of the NBN, Turnbull laid all the blame at Labor’s feet for leaving him a “disastrous train wreck”, disregarding the fact that Labor’s original FTTP design would have given this nation the NBN it needs, and that Abbott’s instruction to then Communications Minister Turnbull to “demolish the NBN” resulted in its degradation with a multi-technology mix and its FTTN design with ageing copper to the premises. The mess we are in is entirely of Turnbull’s making, but he blames Labor. A pointed cartoon portrayed Turnbull sitting in a badly damaged car saying “I’ve had this car for four years; but it was the previous owner that smashed it up”.

Turnbull is eloquent, but instead of using his words elegantly, as he did at the Beersheba celebrations, he uses derogatory sneering words sarcastically aimed at his adversaries. In doing so he demeans himself and depreciates still further the ugly language of politics.

Turnbull is not alone. The habitual propensity of politicians to blame their opponents and absolve themselves from any responsibility diminishes them in the eyes of the electorate, which therefore consigns them to the gutter in which they flounder.

People are sick and tired of adversarial politics, sick and tired of the invective that politicians hurl at one another, sick and tired of always shifting responsibility for failure to others, sick and tired of opponents scarcely ever being able to agree, sick and tired of politicians’ abusive schoolyard behaviour. It is their language, propelled by their habitual disdain of everything their opponents do and say, that sticks in the craw of voters, who place them as low in the social pecking order as used car salesmen.

If only politicians could elevate their oratory to that of statesmen, if only they could discard ugly language and instead use the language of those who really care, they just might drag their profession out of the linguistic cesspool they now inhabit, and attain the lofty height of respected, creditable advocates focussed solely on improving the lot of those who elected them to serve, always determined to pursue the common good, and put aside the self interest that motivates too many of them, day after disappointing day.

Your opinion is welcome.

How do you regard the language of our politicians?

This article was originally published on The Political Sword.

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  1. Arthur Baker

    “a rouge nation”.

    You might mean rogue.

  2. Vixstar

    I find Bill,Tania, Penny and his team succinct, I find the liberals to be verbose 300 word slogans from talcom with name calling spittle tantrums waving his hands around like a true dictator with no balls, Abbotts 3 word slogans were cringe worthy “ditch the witch”
    This government is the worst in history ,financially incompetent, policy inadequate, sucking us dry of everything we believe in equality, compassion for our refugees our poor and our wonderful first peoples of this beautiful country we owe them so much and now its time to vote this liberal party and associates to the gŕaveyard with murdoch nevèr to rise again.

  3. Glenn Barry

    wonderful topic well explored.

    I am averse to many of the current crop of politicians using fallacies to score points, it’s not a new phenomenon.
    It does seem to be reaching a frenzied hysterical level in recent weeks.
    I cannot agree more with the lack of truth denigrating and demeaning the electorate.
    Whilst the general public may lack the linguistic terminology to de-construct the techniques of dishonesty – most know when they are being lied to, even with subtle techniques, and could not but feel insulted.

    There are of course the devotees who will accept the words of some as gospel, which will remain, their numbers though will hopefully diminish over time.
    Unfortunately however critical thinking seems to be on the decline, or my perception of the lack of critical thinking has heightened.

    As for the causes, there are many deliberate perpetrators:

    The media have become collusive and compliant in equal degrees, it is simply impossible to know if challenging questions are being thrust at politicians because what makes it to air is always so sanitised. I do realise it is unfair to generalise about “the media”.

    But corporate and political influence is ubiquitous in the media, politicians so deceitful and journalists obviously corralled in what they can ask, or broadcast, and how they can conduct interviews, I am often left wishing someone would demand a succinct answer to simple questions.

    Witnessing credible, principled journalists being obviously instructed to go easy in interviews is incredibly disheartening.

    Current political discourse seems to be diverging with the LNP stooping lower and lower and Labor seems to be unwilling to reciprocate of course this may change with the resumption of the lower house of parliament the week after next.

    Very occasionally interviewees have been thoroughly challenged, and I am beginning to wonder if knowing the writing is on the wall for the current government, the threat to the journalists employment is less ominous.

  4. Andrew Smith

    Appalling is the language used (mostly) by middle class skips of the LNP, PHON, SA, most media and elements of Labor who have taken on board the supposed existential angst and threat of modern ‘immigrants’ (wink wink, brown and/or Asian people) outnumbering Australian ‘white’ people (whatever ‘white’ is); while many old Labor work for the industrial bosses or support IPA/PHON (of course Australia has no class system!).

    However, none of this is based on facts on the ground in Australia, but simply the ignorant adoption of US/UK nativism or exceptionalism, the distasteful ideology, and just in case anyone thinks we are racist or bigoted, we indulge in lots of clever dog whistling and/or infantile behaviour; all to protect some deep seated negative attitudes.

    In addition to Jane Mayer’s and Adam Curtis’s work on how media has been manipulated by nativist PR of oilgarchs etc., US researcher Ian Haney-Lopez is an expert on ‘dog whistling’. Most assume it’s (consciously) used about race but as he explains, it has also been used against democracy, government, politicians and institutions; UK Brexit it was the decades of dog whistling immigration, Europe and the EU, we all know how that right wing coup is working out. Further, I’ve seen evidence (imo) in Oz of how too many supposedly neutral journalists and presenters make subjective comments which support dumb nativist ideas, obviously with neither skills of reflection nor analysis, but influences everyone.

    Haney-Lopez appears here on Democracy Now presenting his book: ‘Dog Whistle Politics: How Politicians Use Coded Racism to Push Through Policies Hurting All’ https://www.democracynow.org/2014/1/14/dog_whistle_politics_how_politicians_use

    It’s about getting citizens to vote against their own interests.

  5. Harquebus

    “Labor’s original FTTP design would have given this nation the NBN it needs”
    This statement is completely false and is only propagated by those who have no understanding of network technology. Stephen Conroy specified a lemon that was never going to realize the NBN’s true potential. Malcolm Turnbull then did the usual politician thing and turned Conroy’s expensive one trick pony into the expensive lame ass that we are now stuck with.

    Other than that, a good article.

  6. Vixstar

    I am connected with “Conroys one trick pony” and the fibre connection speeds are amazing my friends are connected to talcum’s copper and it buffers and cuts out continously. WARNING THIS IS NOT FAKE NEWS!

  7. Ella miller

    This topic is about the use of Language ?
    As the struggle between the LNP and Labor deepens, to his credit, Bill Shorten and his team have stayed respectful and on topic.
    By contrast MT, the smooth-talking lawyer has shown his true colours, a vindictive, savage individual who has taken on TA’s views of “whatever it takes.” His use of language of late is unbecoming of a PM, who, is after all , supposed to unite the nation and NOT divide it.The venomous language used by our PM in QT in parliament is disgusting and shows no respect to our Parliament or the people he is supposed to serve..The constant use of selfies is another part of his egoistic language.

  8. mgoul13

    There is no doubt that the language of politics has been debased. Not that it was ever honest, mind you, but it was classier,more respectful of the intelligence of the listener/reader. Maybe in some ways it is good that the language has been eroded because now it is obvious to many more that it is dishonest. Politicians are ensuring their own demise. That might be a good thing. Maybe through their own stupidity and cynicism they will help to bring about the change in approach this article puts forward.

  9. Harquebus

    As I said, poorly designed and even more poorly implemented. The NBN could have been so much more. Computers and networks, amongst others, are a couple of things than I am qualified in and that is not fake news either.

    My arguments have already been made in several comments here.

    Day to Day Politics: It’s inadequate. Here is why.

  10. Vixstar

    Copper is a joke , talcums NBN is f*cked give me conroy’s fibre anyday,, you can cherry pick your information any where but proof is in the pudding,

  11. Sue

    Thanks for the links Krono. Don’t you just love it? Apparently Treasury believes that bracket creep for low and middle income earners should do the heavy lifting to pay for the $65.4B tax break destined for the Cayman Island Country Club Bank cartel.
    What a hoot our government is.
    On the issue of China’s ongoing work in subverting national sovereignty, no surprises there. Their target, our politicians, media and some business entities have no real allegiance to this country and the nous of a lump of mud to match. Democracy, what’s that again?

  12. Ricardo29

    A very interesting piece. My concern is that vast numbers of Australians who already profess not to be interested in politics, and I have a few friends in this category, are being turned off even more by the language and performances of pollies and thus using it to further justify their disinterest. I suspect many of these would be conservatives which is why I believe, LNP support remains as high (comparatively) as it is. This reflects disinterested people going with the flow. Of course I have absolutely no factual evidence to back up this assertion. Some might call it fake news.

  13. wam

    The words define the confusion ie is there ample evidence of man’s greenhouse gas emission wider than it reads having a ‘probable influence’ on global warming? Is there ample evidence in the pacific of the damage to animal and plant life by global warming?
    Why are we talking about climate change’?
    ‘People are sick and tired of adversarial politics’
    Did you see karl baby pointing at the fired up trumball his words ‘That’s what we want’,
    Did you see the loonies leader di pointing the finger at labor and the libs. He was pathetic to my eyes but pragmatic in the hope of milking a few more dollars out of the public in elections.

    The watchers of sunrise and today live on political scraps, the advertisers revel in them and ratings reflect them. Whether they are fake or not.

  14. Frank Smith

    Some greying or bald readers here will remember wonderful Parliamentary performers like Fred Daly and Jim Killen. Party spin merchants seem to have eradicated the Dalys and Killens and we are left with the prescribed “talking points for the day”.

  15. astra5

    Thank you all for your encouraging words and your comments, most of which acknowledge that political language has become grossly debased. Yes, Frank Smith I do remember Daly and Killen and the rhetoric they used. There seems to be no one like them any more.

    To me the distressing thing is not that there is no diagnosis – we know what’s wrong with political language – it’s that there seems to be no accepted remedy, or if there is, politicians are not interested. Thus we seem destined to suffer their ugly language indefinitely.

    I’ve written another piece that will be ready in a week or two titled ‘Unravelling Polliespeak’ a light-hearted sequel that describes a taxonomy of political language. I hope you will enjoy it.

    Arthur Baker – you are right!

  16. guest

    astra5, exemplary article. But just a follow-up to Arthur Baker’s comment, under the illustration above is the word “viscous”. It could mean “tacky”, I suppose, but you probably meant to use “vicious”.

  17. guest

    Harquebus, I suggest you Google ‘fibre to the home’ and see just how many countries are involved in this kind of communication.

    No doubt you will be able to tell us why we have it all so wrong here in Oz – and perhaps in every other country, for I fear that you are the only person who really knows how fibre to the home should really be done.

  18. guest

    astra @1.14

    I have no opinion on P’s and Q’s or Ps and Qs. As you can see from your reference, there are various anecdotal explanations for which is the correct punctuation. But with regard to spellings, we can ascertain them even as far back as origins and including American variations.

    As for political language, it has ever been thus. The Roman historian Tacitus got his name (Silent) from his ability to omit dubious details and disguise others. George Orwell played upon political language, as did the tv program “Yes, Minister”.

    By chance I came upon a Slovenian philosopher by the name of Slavoj Zizek (b. 1949), author of a book called “Living in the End of Times”. The reviewer says:

    “His…remark that ‘what matters is appearance, not reality’ might be Zizek’s judgement on the whole modern age. He writes: ‘One of the most elementary cultural skills is to know when (and how) to pretend not to know (or notice), how to go on as if something which has happened did not in fact happen’.”

    The commenter goes on: “The more an individual or group has invested in the current order, the more willing they are to uphold lies. It is only the dispossessed who can tell things exactly as they are, since they have nothing to lose.”

    Too often politicians try to pull the wool over our eyes, but right now the feeling is that the Coalltion has failed to produce what they promised – and yet they pretend all is well. And across the world the dispossessed see the same kind of problem.

    To summarise in the reviewer’s words: “Capitalism has become an ideology that does not allow alternatives, yet it is ill equipped to face major environmental, scientific, and social problems.”

  19. Peter F

    Vixstar . . ‘ but proof is in the pudding,’ The proof might be in the pudding, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
    (How do you know until you’ve eaten.?)

    It appears to me that you have ‘eaten’.

  20. totaram

    Guest: If you think the Physicist Brian Cox can explain global warming to Malcolm Roberts, you are mistaken. It is the same with self-declared experts in communications technology who cannot be convinced even if you were Vint Cerf, or Tim Berners-Lee. Let it go.

  21. guest

    Totaram, harquebus should at least attempt to explain his criticism. I really want to know.

  22. astra5

    Thank you for your response to mine. What you write is of historic interest. I looked for a reference to “Living in the End of Times”, and found a video which I shall enjoy viewing.

  23. Joe Abby

    Our leaders must bring respect back to their discourse for both our sakes and the country as a whole
    As for NBN FTTP is the only way forward the LNP have ruined a great idea for the majority (even if it was somewhat poorly planed) to appease ol’ uncle rupert and keep us in the dark ages technology wise. Stop wasting money on a flawed system and revert to a full fibre for all

  24. diannaart

    Thank astra5 for your pertinent article, a shame those who need to read it won’t get to see it – although it is doubtful they have the ability to such self-reflection.

    While money does not “trickle down” in a purely capitalist economy, behaviour does – primate see primate do.

    I do believe we have fulfilled Paul Keating’s prediction of a Banana Republic.

    The abusive and hostile reaction by the LNP which I thought had reached its zenith with Abbott’s “ditch the witch” has continued unabated.

    This behaviour is contagious and we are in danger of becoming oblivious when the behaviour comes from those we support. That said, Labor has managed to remain relatively civil but it is the public who are likely to become further infected with this abusive tactic of adversarial politics.

    This crop of LNP federal politicians have to go.

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