No one wins as public discourse thins

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It is a commonplace that our political discourse is much impoverished. Speeches are built around the sound bite designed to be quoted. The Trump administration is experimenting with letting go of speeches and communicating within the limits set by Twitter.

Winston ChurchillIn such a world there is little space for more complex rhetoric, for cultural reference, for reflection on historical precedents, or for wondering. From their speeches we would not know generally what politicians read seriously and what significant cultural influences have shaped them. Their words leave no echoes. Political discourse is dominated by barracking and by answers to 'how' questions.

To recall the world's great political speeches and their writers, ghost and fleshly, and the world of Paine and Burke, of Churchill and Kennedy and even of Rudd's Apology, can be an exercise in nostalgia.

Great speeches mainly belonged to a time when the majority of politicians were more highly educated than their constituents, and when the educational curriculum emphasised rhetoric. The speakers and audience alike shared a wide cultural reference and language that enabled them to speak easily about human goals and the good life.

Today the educational system emphasises technique and the solutions to 'how' questions. Paperless schools exist, and there is no cultural canon that is shared. Political discourse reflects this: once finely honed speeches had public effect; now they don't. So they are seen as superfluous.

It is worth musing on what may be lost in the thinning of public discourse. If language is thin, so is the perception of reality. That is dangerous in political life. It leads to shallow policies and destructive actions.

The value of reading, whether in history or of literature or within a religious tradition, lies in its encouragement to tease out the complexity of reality and of the subtle relationships and interconnections, the history of hurt and gift, the insights and fallibility, the mixture of motives, the pressure of events, the unseen consequences of well-intended actions and of the contingencies that characterise any domestic situation, let alone more public events. It provides words that enable reality to be seen.

An instinctive awareness of this complexity, depth and interconnection is important in political life because it corresponds to the reality of the parliamentary process and also of national life. Novels, poetry, biographies, histories and religious texts attend to the depth of human life and interactions. They provide a range of words and images that illuminate the world and so help us to affect it for the better.

 

"If we ignore the past we are vulnerable to a simplistic view of our predicaments and of our own mastery of them. We shall see ourselves as masters of a situation whereas in reality we are one of many actors."

 

These thick accounts of life in its public and private dimensions draw us beyond the 'how' questions which are properly the focus of government attention to the larger human questions of meaning and of happiness on which effectual answers to 'how' questions depend. They ask why particular actions are proposed, and whether they enhance the life of human beings.

They pose the moral dimension of political life in all its difficulties, complexities, challenges to integrity and weaknesses that are part of political life. Biographies and novels again give images of what it is like to act with integrity as a politician, and what kind of consequence of our action, both foreseen and unseen. They foster the self-knowledge and reflectiveness without which politicians are dangerous to themselves and to others

It is considered aximomatic that 'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it'. If this is true, it is not because past situations are identical to present situations, so that we could feed together into a computer the past event and our own situation and so be told what will happen if we act in certain ways. It is rather that if we ignore the past we are vulnerable to a simplistic view of our predicaments and of our own mastery of them. As a result we shall see ourselves as masters of a situation whereas in reality we are one of many actors, not writers of the script.

The invasion of Iraq illustrates perfectly this thin account of human action and the dangers that flow from it. It was orchestrated and applauded by people with little self-knowledge, less insight into the complexity of the situation in which they meddled, and no appreciation of the consequences that might follow. Their naivety was encapsulated in the poverty of the language in which they spoke of their venture.

In the winds that blow strongly across the world we have entered it seems unlikely that the sources that support a thick account of human life and of its public predicaments will be preserved in the mainstream media and popular culture. The task will fall to small groups to reflect in some depth on the events of our day, drawing on the rich cultural, literary and discursive traditions we have inherited. A modest venture, as modest and as hopeful as that of the monks in the dissolution of the Roman world.

 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

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Existing comments

In his book Language and Silence, George Steiner warned of a "massive retreat from the word" in the face of contemporary numeracy and visual image. "Logocentricity" has become a 'boo' word in out culture. Greater emphasis on the reading and analysis of literary classics in English courses, in both schools and tertiary institutions, would go some way to reinstating the due status of the written and spoken word.
John | 01 March 2017


Ripper, Andy (in the informal, chiefly Australian meaning of the word).
Pam | 01 March 2017


'The people that invaded Iraq' were led by George W Bush (Yale University), Tony Blair (Oxford) and John Winston Howard (The University of Sydney). They should, theoretically, have been inculcated with the Canon of Western Literature, History and Religion at some stage in their education and church lives. Certainly Mr Blair should have learnt something from the history of Britain's disastrous interventions in the Middle East. Blair is certainly eloquent, although I think he is either deliberately duplicitous or self-delusional or both. 'Father' Tony Abbott is, to me, symptomatic of so many of our politicians today. He is well educated and quite eloquent albeit his speech is atrocious. Yet, apart from desperately wanting power, it is difficult to see any real vision in him. Perhaps it has been the remorseless and ill-informed 'critique' or Western civilisation and society from within which has destroyed our vision.We need, desperately, to rediscover our own cultural roots. Without knowing who we are we will drift aimlessly at the mercy of every intellectual and political charlatan.
Edward Fido | 02 March 2017


At last a contribution that identifies the problem. The short fix that favours the few, that ignores contributions of the past thinkers who made our present. The question is how do we stop the rot and restore our values ?.
Reg Wilding | 02 March 2017


Our homilies at church are not much better, Do we need another model of homily to attract the young back.
Kevin Laws | 02 March 2017


There is one essential to life to make it worthwhile otherwise we can't live together effectively. It's courtesy and the next level up, kindness. Everything flows from this. However study of history should also be essential and I would hope for study also of literature, language and of course maths, physics and chemistry are an excellent start. All these subjects have been debased and we are seeing the results. There is generally a level of nastiness around the world and also a lack of understanding and accepting democratic votes. The crudeness and vilification towards some politicians and their motives is truely disappointing. Confront without being confrontational, disagree without being disagreeable. How can one bring out the best in oneself or anyone else? First one needs to be courteous.
Jane | 02 March 2017


"A modest venture, as modest and as hopeful as that of the monks in the dissolution of the Roman world." Andy, could you unwrap that for us? I suspect a treasure of wisdom lies hidden in those words.
Jim Bowler | 02 March 2017


Andy your wisdom moves me to tears. Trying trying trying to understand why cruelty is growing in the public discourse and the measley words used to legitimate and excuse it.
Pamela | 02 March 2017


Thank you, Andrew Hamilton for this thoughtful and provoking article. I agree with your assessment of the consequences of imporishment of language meaning and of "history"; languages and literature studies. Unfortunately, the institution where we study does not make for a truly "educated" individual, who becomes capable and willing to learn from the lessons of history and one guided by ethical principles. I think we (as voters) settle for political individuals guided by personal ego, gain and ignorance,because we too are willing to compromise our principles and moral expectations for gain and profit from all situations. Look at the amount of armaments sold to the Middle East: we get busy with fund raising to send to war ravaged countris, but I do not see uproar requesting governemnts all over the globe to stop selling armaments. Just imagine, if all agreed not to sell arms, even if wars erupted, the consequences would be much more limited. Thank you.
Antonina Bivona | 02 March 2017


This piece goes nicely with Brigitte Dwyer's piece on cultural Memory. Seemingly Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western Civilization and he said he thought it would be a very good thing. Andrew's article has some positive pointers as to rising from the contemporary cultural swamp. Valuing learning rather than cash would be a good start for universities. Valuing scholars instead of accountants and economists on boards would work well. Valuing these kinds of discussions on ES is another way. Valuing the insights of other nations, other cultures rather then enforcing integration helps. And reading stories to children works well. But if there is one thing we learn from history it is that we learn nothing from history, as Edward Fido points out.
Michael D. Breen | 02 March 2017


On twitting and the effects of social media, I do agree with your assessment: it is shallow and impermanent way of communicating, devoid of deep meaning in the writer and the reader. I would like to add that for social media to "work" there needs to be a willingness from readers to read it and to respond to it. It takes two parties to have a conversation: It may be too hopeful and unrealistic to expect that everyone would be discriminating enough to vet their reading on social media, but we can and should expect it from the media and from political figures. How can any person (politicians especially) take this form of conversation seriously? D.T. may have initiated it, but why do other politicians and media respond to it, as if it were an acceptable way of talking about ideas and policies to govern countries? Hopefully the checks and balances built into the democratic fabric will provide some kind of protection, until more people are able to reflect and learn to act more responsibly. We want more informed and considered discourse, not knee jerk reactions to twittings: we readers share the responsibility to improve the quality and content of discourse. Thank you
antonina | 02 March 2017


"The task will fall to small groups to reflect in some depth on the events of our day, drawing on the rich cultural, literary and discursive traditions we have inherited. A modest venture and as hopeful as that of the monks in the dissolution of the Roman world." Well said. I think of our 'church world', what's left of it, and the anonymous recourse to prayers online without any meeting of world views, of where the prayer comes from and might go in the life of the consumer; think (ortho) praxis! - way beyond any ephemeral see, judge, act sequence whose function is contained within prevailing idelogy. And the potted 'prayers of the faithful' in church, without any input from worthwhile praxis from those listening, or praying with their, Lord, hear our prayer. Small groups, yes, "little [smelly] flocks" even?
Noel McMaster | 02 March 2017


"If language is thin, so is the perception of reality. That is dangerous in political life. It leads to shallow policies and destructive actions" ... how true Fr Andrew. A brilliant and deeply wise article of historical importance. I, for one, will be sharing this widely. I find that the Wheeler Centre here in Melbourne offers some great offerings at times ... and have them made available for free online after the event e.g. Raimond Gaita & Jay Winter on the topic of "War and Terror: the Nightmare of our Times". Somehow though, we need to be able to find ways to change these "shallow policies and destructive actions" ... perhaps the John Cain Foundation for Social Democracy could help? I do my bit whenever I'm in a situation that requires it (I managed to change a ridiculous internal Centrelink policy when I was receiving its 'benefits' as a single parent) ... We also need to respect life-long learning opportunities ... wisdom is needed more than ever.
Mary Tehan | 02 March 2017


Response to Kevin Laws suggestion about new homily models. First start with allowing the faithful to hear women's perspectives on the Sunday Scriptures.
Judy Kenny | 02 March 2017


Not a problem. Trump has set a way with Twitter but the better way is for the PM or the Leader of the Opposition to deliver a fireside chat to the people from the unmediated liberty of his or her website, unmediated by the time constraints of TV or radio or by a press which, instead of reporting the speech verbatim, will ‘report’ it through an article which is more commentary than the speech itself. The Internet allows one to get the stuff straight from the horse’s mouth. And if the horse isn’t culturally erudite, speechwriters who are can be hired to prepare the gettysburg addresses, fdr firechats or ruddian apologies to serve as the weekly, fortnightly or monthly states-of-the union as circumstances might require.
Roy Chen Yee | 03 March 2017


I believe there is a connection between chastity, charity and the spiritual effectiveness of a priest's homily. Just as there is a connection between the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit, being One. The words in a homily are fruit of chastity and charity, the imitation of Christ. Was there chastity and charity before the Word became flesh? No. I have heard homilies of chaste and charitable priests, and priests less charitable. The best wine from the words of chaste and charitable priests is always offered and vinegar from those who have little. The more educated though with less life experience- truly assisting the poor, the destitute, the mother and the fatherless child, the less the homily leaves a spiritual awakening, a healing and comforting impression. Jesus gives His Holy Spirit freely. Though to some more and to others less, and to others it is taken away. To hear the words of the chaste and charitable priest, is to hear Jesus speaking His words of Truth.
AO | 05 March 2017


Father Hamilton,that was one of the most thought provoking articles I have read in a long time. I have preserved it in a folder marked'inspirational' on my iPad. I guess I should print it also.
John Casey | 05 March 2017


It's not only about the words we speak... in the dissolution of the Roman world. St Teresa D'Avila said, if I'm not mistaken, ''He was so poor He had no place to rest His head except on the wood of the Cross at Calvary''. Could we please start to see priests in just plan white, instead of luxurious purple worn at all the Masses during Lent? Why wear the purple/ red cloak placed on Christ by the Roman soldiers, symbolising Christs' Kingship? when His Human/ Divine garment of Verity was His Precious Blood stained Shroud.
AO | 07 March 2017


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