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Best of 2011: 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

More passion - yes: vitriol - no. There's enough negativity and destructiveness in the world already.

hilary | 09 January 2012  

Edwina Byrne asks "when was the last time you heard an Australian politician invent their own intelligible metaphor?". Easy: Gough Whitlam, 1972

Alan Slatyer | 09 January 2012  

"Those who claim no-one could have predicted that violent language would inspire violent action" should consult the vile viciousness of Australia's talk-back radio shock-jocks, on air - unmoderated, unchallenged, monopolising public discourse via inappropriate media ownership concentration - all day every day - remember the Cronulla riots? Remember PM Howard's refusal to condemn his mate, Alan Jones? "Who among our leaders" makes my "heart swell" with inspiration? Leader of The Australian Greens - Dr Bob Brown.

Michelle Goldsmith | 09 January 2012  

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