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Australian politics could use a dash of vitriol


Earlier this month, at a public meeting in Tucson Arizona, a moderate Democratic congresswoman and 12 bystanders were shot by a disturbed young man with quasi-political motives. Were Australia not experiencing a calamity of more pressing import, the shooting might give pause for discussion of the state of political rhetoric. Ironically, it seems our own leaders may have dodged that bullet.

The first pictures most Australians saw of the tragedy were of Tucson's sheriff, clearly emotional, answering clinical questions about rounds fired and security footage, and then, quite unexpectedly, venturing his own analysis.

'When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry ... that may be free speech, but it's not without its consequences.'

(Continues below)

Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's remarks did not refer specifically to the 'Tea Party' movement (in fact, his criticism of certain sections of the media was much more pointed) but the remainder of the news cycle was devoted to ascribing blame to this extreme and vocal minority within the Republican Party.

This scrutiny was not without reason; prominent Tea Partiers have typically described the movement as revolutionary in character, and make frequent reference to 'taking back America'.

For example, proto-Tea Partier and former presidential candidate Ron Paul addressed a GOP conference last year with the words 'Government is the enemy of liberty', while Minnesota's Governor Pawlenty offered this: 'Patriots in this room and patriots across this country are rising up. And we have a message for liberals: We're planting the flag on common ground, and if you try to take our freedoms, we will fight back!'

Unsurprisingly, the possibility that such rhetoric may have contributed to the shootings found currency with many.

Australian commentators were quick to counter the sheriff's assessment with the insight that the shootings were 'the actions of a madman', and therefore not worthy of further analysis.

I sympathise with these commentators, because frankly, as a writer, it is a lot easier to sound insightful when playing devil's advocate. No editor will publish an opinion piece with a central thesis of 'I agree entirely with what everyone else is saying. There is very little complexity to this issue.'

I disagree with these commentators (see? that makes me sound considered and printworthy). Those who claim no-one could have predicted that violent language would inspire violent action should consult Act 3 of Shakespeare's Julius Caeser, or Henry V, or the speeches of Churchill and Hitler.

In fact the only surprising feature of this affair is that the first weeks of 2011 would see American politicians loudly proclaiming that their words have no effect.

We, as audiences and voters, share some of the blame for divisive and hateful rhetoric. We love to complain about negative ads and sound bites, but we listen. Vitriol is an effective public speaking tool, because like it or not, human beings respond to emotive language that pits audiences against a common enemy.

If we proved ourselves disinterested in stereotype, understanding of policy complexity or respectful of sober, thoughtful reflection, we might be rewarded with a more honest and productive discourse.

But it is our political leaders who bear ultimate responsibility for this discourse. In a democracy, the temptation to appeal to the basest instincts of the majority is ever present: great leaders simply find more honourable values to unite us. They speak to the better angels of our natures, and inspire us to act in the service of a more perfect society.

Thankfully, in these early weeks of the New Year we also have a reminder of the upside of our susceptibility to impassioned oratory. The King's Speech is less a film about great speeches than a portrayal of one man's patriotic struggle against his own limitations (and, one suspects, a shameless Oscar grab). But in it, George V reminds us of how a nation can hang on every word of a speech whose aim is to unite, uplift, and inspire.

Watching it, I couldn't help but be reminded of watching Kevin Rudd in the first months of his prime ministership, wanting so badly for him to lead and inspire, and cringing as he struggled with a speech impediment that burst forth unbidden: 'detailed programmatic specificity' 'accompanying benchmarks and measurable outcomes'.

The speeches of the Tea Party movement, for all their faults, are notable for their vivid symbolism and appeal to values. Their frequent use of gun-related metaphors and imagery, though problematic in conjunction with their revolutionary image, is quite understandable given the accessibility of these metaphors for a gun-happy audience.

In contrast, Australia's political discourse is dry and shallow. Speeches contain clichés in place of metaphors, bureaucratic weasel words in place of vivid imagery.

George Orwell feared these times, not for the personal attacks or the combative style of speechmaking, but for the emergence of a language in which reams of meaningless, abstract, ready-made phrases could be strewn together in place of oratory.

When was the last time you heard an Australian politician invent their own intelligible metaphor? Have you ever felt your heart swell with emotion at the announcement of so many billion dollars in grants? Who among our leaders has made you feel proud of your country — not in a xenophobic or superior sense, but so that you feel compelled to contribute to your community?

This is the way the world ends.

In Tucson, it seems, President Obama's own masterful appeals to unity and compassion have resolved the controversy over inflammatory rhetoric. If, in Australia, we postpone this debate until our local brand of political rhetoric ignites the passions of a citizen, we may be waiting a very long time. 

Edwina ByrneEdwina Byrne is a communications consultant and aspiring speechwriter. She's happy to respond to queries or comments on her facebook page.

Topic tags: Edwina Byrne, Tucson, shooting, Tea Party, Sarah Palin, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, Gabrielle Giffords



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Existing comments

Bob Brown, in my view, is a statesman who appeals to us to honour high values and principles by championing human and earth rights.

Vacy Vlazna | 21 January 2011  

Edwina, where have you been? Haven't you thrilled like the rest of us to masterful and colorful political rhetoric driving us to want to "Stop the boats" and to attack all sorts of "Great big new tax"? Wasn't all that exactly what you espouse - the spirit lifting rhetoric a great modern country hungered for?

Joe Castley | 21 January 2011  

And what about that former politician who said "We'll say who comes to our country " with great vigour and passion.

david sykes | 21 January 2011  

I would like to point out an omission in this article. The Tea Partiers and Republicans do not have the market cornered for vitriolic speech. President Obama himself said the following on how to beat the Republicans. “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” In addition Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a democrat, said this about Florida’s new Republican Governor Rick Scott. “That Scott down there that’s running for governor of Floria. Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him." Right after the tragedy in Arizona many journalists, bloggers and commentators were very quick to point the finger at Palin and the right for the tone of their language. In reality, there was very little, if any, difference in the tone of the left's or the right's language. Furthermore, no connection was found between the shooter and the policies or positions of the right. This vindicated those commentators who said that Loughner was a deranged individual, wholly disconnected to the words or policies of the right.

Nguyen Duy | 21 January 2011  

Vacy Vlazna, I do not accept that there is any such concept as "earth rights". I accept the view put forward by Genesis. God gave the world as a gift to humankind. He said, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it." Humans were given all created things to use for their own good. Certainly this does not mean that we should have no respect for nature or other creatures. We must use the natural world that God has given to us with respect and care. It is not ours to abuse. It is, after all, a marvellous and wondrous world. However, humans are at the top of the pyramid. We are free to use this world for the betterment of our own existence. I reject concepts such as Gaia existing as some sort of discrete entity. It is inconsistent with the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Patrick James | 21 January 2011  

Vacy Vlazna, you portray Bob Brown as a paragon of honour and principles. Is this the same Bob Brown who denounced donations from individuals to political parties, but then accepted $1.6 million from billionaire Wotif founder Graeme Wood? Brown is as capable of hypocrisy as the next politician.

Tim | 21 January 2011  

Thank you Edwina this is a well written article and full of incite which some of our own do not have,,,,,,An American who loves my God and Country!

Rose-Marie Edwards-Tasker | 21 January 2011  

Edwina, you'll be a most cogent speechwriter I dare say. As for me, well, I have difficulties with embracing the notion of free speech - unreservedly.

While I applaud a whistle blower informing others of a government's excesses, I can't condone giving a citizen the right to purchase a gun. In the US, 'the land of the free', people can have guns AND the death penalty.

Something doesn't tally here. Especially since the metaphor of roads and traffic lights could inform us. How to resolve, in all fairness, this complex issue? Help!

Joyce | 21 January 2011  

Bob Brown and the Greens certainly do not champion the human rights of the unborn.

John Tobin | 21 January 2011  

Is the metaphor of "vitriol" appropriate if we want something injected into or added to our community leaders'(secular and religious) oratory if they are to inspire us, their followers, to become passionate about important issues?
The analogical use of vitriol refers to the highly caustic nature of the primary subject - sulphuric acid. If Edwina wants more leaders with caustic tongues I can't see how anyone can be at one and the same time a practising Christain and a political or religious leader.

I know a lot of vitriol is injected into the pre-match pep-talks of Rugby League games but surely the average Australian citizen deserves pep-talks of a higher order.

Uncle Pat | 21 January 2011  

I clearly remember an instance when Peter Costello inspired Australia.
While Treasurer circa 2007, he described the Australian economy as a 'highly-calibrated formula 1 racing car,' and followed that up with 'I wouldn't want to put an L-plater behind the wheel.'

The result: Labor in a landslide.
How can you that Australian political discourse doesn't inspire?

T McIntosh | 21 January 2011  

"Bob Brown, in my view, is a statesman who appeals to us to honour high values and principles..."

The man who's principal political goals are abortion on demand and euthanasia? Get a broader view.

Kim Miller | 22 January 2011  

What a beautiful thesis, Edwina.

If only it remotely approached the facts.

I invite readers to consult Michelle Malkin's devastating litany of leftist vicious advocacy attacks, including Sarah Palin being punched, gang-raped, shot and aborted and George Bush being assassinated.


Plus, as Nguyen Duy has aptly pointed out above, Barack Obama's vitriol.

Congratulations for advocating a more robust political dialogue, Edwina. But ... is this what you had in mind?

HH | 22 January 2011  

(King) George V? Bertie was the sixth George.

karen rooksby | 24 January 2011  

As an American, I deeply appreciate the outside perspective Australia offers on things like the shooting in Tucscon. It's very difficult for us to get past media hysteria to the obvious fact that the shooter was not motivated by FOX News or Sarah Palin, just deranged.

Having said that, I would offer that the discourse of the Tea Party is more problematic than it may seem to the author. Its rhetoric is quite appealing in its simplicity and immediacy, but that of course is also its flaw. It sounds richer than the weasel words of some politicians in Australia, but really it's just a shiny bauble, sugar coated version of the same. It's not an alternative to the warnings of Orwell; it embodies them.

I salute the desire for a richer imagination in the political and social discourse of Australia (and America, for that matter -- an effort being fronted more than anyone by comedian Jon Stewart). But I suspect that richer imagination is more likely to be found in the dynamic speeches of past Australian leaders, like Keating, for instance, than in much of what's on show in the USA.

Jim McDermott, SJ | 24 January 2011  

Yesterday I had to sit through about half a dozen Australia Day speeches at my local citizenship ceremony.

In the stifling heat, none of the politicians or Australia day ambassadors got the applause that was received by the bush poet who rolled out 10 entertaining larrikin poems and then played the national anthem on gum leaves.

Andrew | 27 January 2011  

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