Come in Spinner: Words, sticks and stones

One of the great achievements of the post-World War Two consensus – the moderation of political language – is starting to unravel a little bit.

A cynic might argue that with little difference between the policy stances of what John Keane calls the ‘cartel parties’, language and its vehemence becomes the major differentiator between them. Moreover, in a data and information saturated society hyperbole gets more hyperbolic in attempts to get attention. Come in Spinner has previously remarked on how even broadsheet media use beat-up verbs such as hit, slammed, grabbed instead of more prosaic and accurate ones. Political advisers and PR people accentuate the tendency by crafting grabs – when not producing anodyne stuff about real issues – which break through the clutter on peripheral issues

And the public Australian political language is much more moderate than the private language of the major political parties – particularly among factional leaders from both sides talking about factional enemies from their own sides.

Yet immoderate language has it price. This is not to suggest that language should be controlled – as far as I’m concerned anything short of outright incitement to violence goes – although people who believe in civility inevitably impose constraints on themselves in talking about others and other groups. This is sadly termed political correctness, rather than civility and consideration, but it is a conscious choice rather than the infringement of civil liberties and restriction on open political discourse which Howard and others have tried to portray it as.

For much of history we have seen the price of immoderation and the post-1945 consensus in much of Europe, Britain and Australia is very much a brief interlude.

Some scatological or subversive language has been a product of oppression. For instance there is an old Ethiopian proverb that says “when the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply and silently f……..rts”.

Much of the opposition to the French monarchy and aristocracy during the 18th century was expressed in less moderate scatological slanders and gossip than the Ethiopian proverb. The historian Robert Darnton has made a convincing case, over much research and many publications, that this licentious subversion was a major factor in undermining the legitimacy of the Old Regime and paving the way for the Revolution.

There has also been a long European history of extremist and violent language preceding hideous violence. It’s also easy to see the impacts of religious extremism and the violent language which accompanies it (eg the Thirty Years War and modern day terrorists) – but what of other modern vehemence?

A review of Darnton’s latest book, The Devil in the Holy Water, (which I haven’t yet read), by David Coward (TLS 9 July 2010) highlights how this examination of slanders against rulers from Louis XVI to Napoleon, has contemporary resonances. Coward says: “But we should at our peril ignore Darnton’s modestly expressed reminder that, in our world of instant, global communication, where scandal is circulated at the speed of light, the personalisation of politics has become insidious, more reductive and more dangerous than ever.” As the Darnton research shows – it starts with scandal and scurrility and can, without care, descend into other things quite rapidly

Fortunately Australia has been spared these extremes, although Australian and US politics has been marked by a  number of examples of scurrilous and scandalous accusations against Keating, Howard, Obama and others which have been circulated digitally and by word of mouth – not in the interests of satire – but as deliberate and dishonest attempts to undermine their credibility and legitimacy. Some of our most extreme extremists, like the New Guard, have also probably been more ludicrous than dangerous.

But we are now in another period of political discourse devoted to undermining legitimacy and ramping up a sense of outrage and horror. George Brandis can compare the election result and the Government to being less legitimate than the Pakistan cricket team; Tony Abbott doesn’t ask Malcolm Turnbull to ‘debate’ the NBN but to ‘demolish’ it; and, the demonisation of refugees and  asylum seekers is unabated.

This is not to suggest in any way that any of the current events in Australia or the US are going to lead to re-runs of the French revolutionary violence – although the number of assassination threats against Obama are apparently at record levels and the Tea Parties seem to be suggesting that a revolution is needed to take back their country.

But it does raise questions about whether we want to live in a society marked by civility or one marked by vehemence; what are the longer-term impacts of deliberately seeking to de-legitimise governments and political processes; and, how Australia rates in worldwide trends on the issue.

In the UK, the Conservative Lib-Dem accord seems to be having an impact on civility and policy. Unlike Margaret Thatcher they seem to believe in society and community. Kenneth Clarke is questioning the value of prisons and the new government seems united on rolling back the Blair Government’s attacks on civil liberties, with ASBO abolition being just one of a range of measures which would provide a useful guide to how to end Australian political parties’ obsession with out-bidding each other on law and order and taking away civil liberties. On the other hand, throughout Europe political parties are gaining votes on the back of campaigns against immigration and espousing extremism, even if the newly-emerged far Right parties in Europe have tended to disintegrate when they get nearer to power.

Tory One Nation rhetoric has, of course, always had a touch of hypocrisy about it and often hardly matches the private rhetoric. Social democrats have been terrified of sounding dangerous and also practise their own version of public-private hypocrisy.

But, whether fear or hypocrisy, the post-War consensus has had its virtues – they are called civility, conversation and community.