Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Essay – slogans, politics and the misuse of language

Following up on the discussion on Problems with Team Tony, this morning’s short Sunday Essay takes these words from Tony Blair as an entry point:

The way in which information is exchanged so quickly has forever changed the way in which people want to consume information.They demand that things be condensed into 20-second sound bites. With complex problems, this is exceedingly difficult, but to be an effective communicator and leader you need to be able to condense complex items down to the core and be able to do this quickly.” – Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister.

I found Mr Blair’s words to be deeply condescending because they seem to imply that I need to be spoon-fed, to be given my information on a spoon in the way my mother gave me medicine as a child. The discussion that threw up this quote dealt in part with the need for simplification. Winton Bates even tried his hand at twitterising the Gettysburg address! 

There is no doubt that short phrases or sentences can be powerful. “Not happy, Jan” entered the Australian language from a TV ad because it so aptly captured that feeling of discontent that we all feel from time to time. In the newspaper press, the role of a good sub-editor is to create the headline that will both capture the essence of a story and persuade people to read it. This is a highly skilled craft form. It is also one in which the two objectives, capturing the essence while persuading people to read, can conflict. We have all seen dramatic headlines that do not properly reflect the content, We have also seen headlines that are influenced by a third factor as well, the campaigns or particular political stances that the paper happens to be pursuing at the time.

In politics, Mr Abbott’s “Stop the Boats” is effective because it both plays to prejudice and succinctly captures a Government objective. Interestingly, people were actually surprised at the fervour with which the Government pursued this objective to the exclusion of other considerations. It appears that many of us reacted as though it were just a slogan rather than a Government objective writ in stone that must be delivered no matter the cost.

In the religious arena, “love thy neighbour as thyself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are powerful phrases because they capture the essential message of Christianity.

Sadly, we live in a world where Mr Blair’s views have come to occupy the high ground. That is the way we are all treated. If I am to be fed on a diet of slogans and simplified messages, then I appear to have reached a position once defined by Adolf Hitler: All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach. I am in no way equating Adolf Hitler and Mr Blair, but Mr Blair’s views as quoted above would seem in many ways to carry something of the same message as expressed by Hitler those years before.

Things tend to correct themselves, although there is a price to be paid for that correction. We live in an age today where every initiative, every policy statement, every new business cost cutting measure  has to have a title attached to it, to be expressed in a particular visual form, to have its own communications strategy. As with so many things, communications strategies have become de rigueur because communications itself has become so poor that people have largely tuned out. The price we pay is to be served unadulterated pap. A further price is that things that are important can actually be concealed, can escape attention.

I, for one, would like to have less communications and more information, less communications and more analysis. I want to be given time to think about things, to understand.

Australian Treasury Secretary Parkinson talks about the increasing difficulty of bringing about “reform”, contrasting the present period with Bob Hawke’s time. I think that he is fundamentally wrong in one important respect. Presently, Australians (and others) live in a world of constant change, of constant calls for reform all constantly packaged and re-presented. How do Australians (and others) identify what is important when the goal posts and rules shift so often that nobody can understand just what game is actually being played?

That’s the nub of it. We don’t have a communications problem as such. We have an approach problem in which “communications” itself has become part of the problem. 

In addition to being the Sunday Essay, this post also acts as the Monday Forum post.    


Evan said...

I agree with the thrust of your argument Jim.

I think Adolf and Tony and many an ad agency person just understand PR and advertising.

In one sense it is a sophisticated form of rhetoric - the goal being persuasion. This has a tradition of 2000 years.

I think one think that would help is to be clear about the values being argued for.

Rod said...

Jim you said: "I, for one, would like to have less communications and more information, less communications and more analysis. I want to be given time to think about things, to understand."

Ironically your 20 second sound bite seems to sum it very well.

Jim Belshaw said...

You made me smile, Rod. I have never been opposed to trying to capture things simply!

Evan, although I agree with your general point, in a lot of cases it's not actually about values. Rather more, will it work, what are the costs.

Evan said...

I agree Jim.

Once values are clear it is quite easy to determine efficiency and preferred options.

Rummuser said...

Twitter is the guilty party here and I think that TB is addressing the problems using that as a medium. I am in the midst of a long drawn pro and anti debate on Richard Dawkins who called giving birth to a child with Down Syndrome as immoral. This happened because he used twitter and he could not elaborate what he meant or at least that is what he has been saying post event. I am against his stance but there are surprisingly enough very erudite persons defending him. Had the whole issue been conveyed in a longish communication, the issue may not have blown up to what it has.

Anonymous said...

Jim, there is an alternate view to your distaste of the soundbite political discourse. Maybe the pollies and their advisors are crediting you with enough common sense to recognise the import/context of their short-form statements?

Take for instance - "stop the boats" - would you really prefer a(nother) full exposition of the whys, hows, implications - or are you enough up with the background to the ongoing debate to simply make your own mind up about all that, and weigh it against other priorities? I think you are; and I think you would be insulted - or simply switch off - if yet another talking head provided you with yet more backgroud, on an issue which has been by now endlessly debated by representatives of all sides of the debate.

So, "stop the boats". Condense, commit. Don't complain.

But if you don't like being spoon fed, as you put it, here's one of the best bits of political oratory I've read. And I've read it many times now. Beware, it is long, but I think you can handle it :)

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

We have talked about the Gettysburg Address. I think RFK's words are equally laudable.


Jim Belshaw said...

I noted the Dawkins controversy, Ramana, but had not followed up on the details. I do wonder in this case if twitter is to blame; the longer explanation is consistent with the tweet?

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, response tonight.

Rummuser said...

It is. He maintains that he was advising one individual who asked him for his opinion on the morality of aborting the foetus if it was to be born with Downs Syndrome.

Jim Belshaw said...

Stop the boats, kvd, has the advantage of simplicity. The government can also argue that it has done just that.

My comment about spoon feeding was a general one. Still, and specifically on stop the boats, I wasn't expecting what came, that the slogan was an absolute objective that must be delivered regardless of cost and damage to other objectives. There is a lesson there.

Agree on JFK.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ramana - and the rest of the world doesn't read twitter?

Anonymous said...

Accept what you say Jim, but I still believe there is some merit in Winton's earlier comment that we, the voters, should be (are) able to convert the 'slogan' or 'one-liner' backwards into the detailed policy argument.

Obviously not all will, but I think most aware citizens can make that jump reasonably well. If you believe otherwise then that implies some sort of elitism - which I absolutely know is not your view of your fellow citizens.

And just on 'stop the boats' I'm not sure how you can divorce the physical act of stopping the boats from the expressed policy decision to prohibit that means of entry to Australia? I'm not sure what you're saying there - and please understand that I believe our own personal stances on this are very similar.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd and another apology for slow response. In broad terms I take the force of your comment. Of course I can convert the slogan back, but my interpretation is not necessarily the same as those promoting the slogan.

Stop the boats is a case in point. Very early I expressed concern about what I saw as lack of balance and subtlety in the Government's response here. If you like, a slogan provides an objective but says nothing about the path.