Public language: can we have eloquent leaders again, please?

When, precisely, did public language become so bland? So full of cliches and spin? So bloody meaningless? And how is this affecting our public view of the language-manglers?

Don Watson’s wonderful satire of bureaucraspeak, Weasel Words, summed up, from A to Z, how the English language has been stripped of so much of its colour and texture by the mind-numbing tedium of bureaucratic jargon. During my brief career in the public service I kept a copy of Weasel Words prominently on my desk and referred to it frequently in writing ministerial briefs, correspondence and reports. In retrospect, this may have been why my public service career was so brief, perhaps had I attempted to take my job slightly more seriously I would have stayed longer. Like Watson, though, I found the public sector obsession with stripping away the directness of language and replacing it with opaque phraseology and off-the-shelf managerialism beyond what I was prepared to do.

Watson is a master of language, having written some of Keating’s most memorable speeches, and Keating himself minced his words for the sake of obfuscating their meaning. Hawke spoke directly to the public and Fraser and Whitlam, while they both maintained patrician images, never dumbed-down their speeches or lapsed into jargon.

It was Mike Carlton’s comment yesterday about Julia Gillard’s media performances that highlighted the point that our language is not being used for communication, rather to fill the void where communication used to be. His speculation on breakfast conversation in The Lodge sums up how public and private language have separated totally and with it, the gulf between the public and private spheres has widened. Hardly surprising, then, that most people perceive politicians to be out of touch:

“Tim, let me just make the point here, if I may, that in terms of breakfast, like so many hardworking Australian families across this wonderful country of ours, obviously I myself enjoy Vegemite on my toast, and I would very much welcome it if you would reach out across the table and transition me the jar of that delicious spread.”

Kevin Rudd’s public language is even worse: tedious, unnecessarily detailed, pernickety and totally devoid of any discernible meaning. The point is not what is being said, but the fact that something is being said, and being said in such a way as to give the impression that even though we, the mug punters, might not understand it, the person saying the words does. Therefore, everything is under control. Don’t panic.

Public language has become a sort of linguistic Potemkin screen to disguise what is really going on. Which may not be much at all.

This is one of the reasons Anna Bligh’s straight-talking during the Queensland flood crisis has won admiration from supporters and opponents alike. Her words were clear, unadorned and understandable. She did not treat the public like twits who just needed to be reassured that someone was in control. She told it as it was, plain and simple: offered words of encouragement or comfort or provided information as appropriate. She treated the public as intelligent human beings. The public responded accordingly. There is a lot of talk about whether or not this is sufficient to boost the electoral stakes of her government, but regardless, Bligh is now being widely regarded in Queensland as a people’s leader. Someone who communicates directly and tells the truth.

Which brings me to the point about the widening gulf between politicians and people. There are not a lot of people’s leaders around at the moment. Gillard’s scripted media conferences are fodder for lampooning and not much more. Those who know her, and the many journos who have followed her on the campaign trail, attest that in person she is warm, likeable and connects very easily with people. Unfortunately, the people she connects with on a personal basis are far outnumbered by those who will only ever see her through a TV screen monotonously mouthing a prepared statement. Her media advisors would do well to stop listening to ALP head office, stop reading Weasel Words as though it’s a bible instead of a send-up, give her the information she needs to convey and just let her get on with it.

Language is our primary tool for communication. There is a wonderful scene in the movie, The King’s Speech, where the elderly King George V looks ruefully at the radio microphone on his desk, having just made his Christmas broadcast, and says to his son, the future George VI, “There was a time when all a king needed to do was look respectable in a uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we have to invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them.”

Never has that been more true as it is with politics now. The electronic media has given us access to politicians as never before, but instead of connecting with human beings whom we have elected to represent our interests, we are increasingly connecting – or perceive that we are connecting – with automatons.

Can we trust automatons to make decisions on our behalf? If the language is opaque, circuitous and indecipherable, what else are they hiding? If the meaning is so difficult to convey in plain English, what else is so difficult? Normal people, as Carlton pointed out, don’t talk like that and neither do politicians in private (with the possible exception of Kevin Rudd) and most of us don’t have the time or inclination to try to work out the actual intent of a standard Gillard media statement – which are becoming more robotic by the day. So we turn off: literally and figuratively. We just tune out and tell ourselves (and our friends and neighbours) that politicians are out of touch and have no idea what’s going on in the real world.

That’s the world where people talk straight and understand one another.

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About Coffee with Ruby

Ruby is a writer, lecturer and thinker who blogs mostly on politics, environment and social philosophy. She has been at the coalface of the political process, but is now strictly an observer. Join Ruby for coffee and musings over whatever is going on at the time ...
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2 Responses to Public language: can we have eloquent leaders again, please?

  1. Pingback: Language and the Liberal leadership | Coffee with Ruby

  2. Pingback: Manipulating the language or the truth? | Coffee with Ruby

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