What theology and philosophy say about ScoMo

It is easy to see Scott Morrison as just a salesman and huckster. But there are two ways to get deeper insight into Scott Morrison – one theological and one philosophical.

Both feature a special relationship between words and performance and the belief that the performing of words causes actions.

In theological terms the most obvious is the creation account in chapter one of the Book of Genesis where each day of creation is built around the grammatical structure, “God said, ‘Let there be…….’ And it was so……And God saw that it was good.”

In philosophical terms J. L. Austin defined performative utterances as being neither true or false but the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action. It is not a case of just saying something.

Examples are: ‘I do take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife’ in a marriage ceremony; ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’ as you smash a champers bottle against the stern; or ‘I give and bequeath my watch to my brother’ in a will.

Morrison’s religious framework is Pentecostalism which is a very oral form of Christianity.  Dr Peter Horsfield, a scholar of religion and communications, suggest that maybe Morrison actually thinks that way. All Morrison has to do is make an announcement and it happens, just like God. He doesn’t think he actually has to do it but that it happens  because he speaks.

And there is ample evidence that Dr Horsfield’s view is valid – from vaccination procurement to observance of Ministerial standards and from any number of other Morrison announcements not followed by action.

Walter Ong’s book Orality and Literacy discusses many of these issues suggesting that oral peoples commonly think names (one kind of words) convey power over things. He says: “in an oral culture, restriction of words to sound determines not only modes of expression but also thought processes.”

While most of us agree that words have power Ong argues that this is a special case with the way that “oral peoples commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power.”

If we disregard recorded sound – which sadly for Morrison can be played back to check whether he had actually said what he has just denied saying – Ong argues there is no way to stop sound and have sound. “There is no equivalent of a still shot for sound,” he says.

It is tough for the rest of us to interpret how Morrison operates because, Ong says, “fully literate people can only imagine what a primary oral culture is like.”

“The fact that oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency is clearly tied, at least unconsciously, with their sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded and hence power-driven,” he says. In Morrison’s case Ong’s ‘at least unconsciously’ is probably superfluous.

Markus Kneer and others (PNAS) looked at the problem from a different perspective. “Human action and interaction are heavily governed by conventions, norms, and laws. Over the last few decades, philosophers have explored whether assertion—the backbone of linguistic communication, and thus all language-dependent human practices—is regulated by norms. The topic could not be more pertinent to the current misinformation controversy that shapes public discourse in the United States and many other countries,” they say.

They set out to test norms around whether it was appropriate for someone to make an assertion only if its content is at least true. They also test (in a study across Japan, Germany and the US) whether “true belief by itself, suffices, or whether acceptability requires knowledge.”  The researchers’ question is ultimately about what we think is significant:  justified belief or mere belief.

Their finding is bad news for Morrison – the community norm for an assertion is justified belief not the sort of tactical belief which underpins many Morrison statements. In his case the picture is complicated by the fact that the research just looks at assertions and only subtly suggests questions about lies and misinformation.

The question of relationships between words and performance are analogous to the way we look at monuments or icons.

Anthony Gormley and Martin Gayford in their book, Shaping the World Sculpture from Prehistory to Now, look at idolatry and the talismatic arguing that icons and the talismatic are designed to be the co-producers of meaning.

In this context part of Morrison’s performative statements are his accessories – Sharks scarf, cap etc etc and other icons – which he hopes to get you to co-produce a particular meaning which matches his own.

But it all gets back to whether Morrison believes what he says, whether he ever stops to consider his inconsistencies or whether in saying it he is willing a new reality.

For instance, in the latest Christian Porter episode, Morrison said: “He has this afternoon taken the appropriate course of action to uphold those standards by tendering his resignation as a minister this afternoon, and I have accepted his resignation.”

“His actions have been about upholding the standards.

“We believe they are incredibly important, and it is not just about actual conflicts, it’s about the standards for ministers to have an obligation to avoid any perception of conflicts of interest that is ultimately what has led the Minister to make that decision this afternoon.

“There are grey areas in these issues, complex arrangements when applied to particular circumstances can be inconclusive.

“But the Minister has taken the decision which errs on the side of upholding the highest standards,” Morrison said.

To think that his Ministers or himself believe in upholding the highest standards of responsibility because he says it’s so is a classic example of the theological and philosophical issues his words and performances raise. The easy answers are that he either just lies whenever he thinks he needs to, actually believes his lies or like God in Genesis assumes that his words create reality.

It also reminds us that we should worry when any politician starts to take their cues from Scripture and think they are doing God’s work. For instance, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has just announced that “only God” can remove him from office. One can only hope Morrison hasn’t got the same idea in his head.

This article grew out of discussions with Dr Peter Horsfield. John Spitzer brought the Kneer research to the author’s attention.