Thursday, June 25, 2020

It's Time for Plain Talk

Statue of George Orwell outside BBC headquarters - the wall behind is inscribed 
with the words "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people 
what they do not want to hear," from his proposed preface to Animal Farm.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an American sculptor of the Beaux-Arts generation, once remarked that "'s the way a thing's done that makes it right or wrong."

When it comes to public talk, I believe we're long overdue for some plain talk about what we should accept as right. 

Too many public conversations now (obviously, tweets too) are just, well, unacceptable, wrong, off, or cringeworthy. Take your pick, or waste energy on expletives and likely you'll be closest to right.

Here, I'm not referring to comments like someone who described an opponent as "simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up." With variants tracing back to at least 1966, the endurance of this artful and possibly apt gibe might be welcome for many to hear (except the latest target).

No, what we need plain talk about is what George Orwell's description of Newspeak helped spotlight, namely "doublethink," "doubletalk," and that close relative "doublespeak." 

This is "a process of indoctrination whereby the subject is expected to accept as true that which is clearly false, or to simultaneously accept two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in contravention to one's own memories or sense of reality." (Wikipedia)

Why then are there not more of us carrying out Orwell's urging to jeer "...loudly enough, [to] send some worn out and useless phrasesome...lump of verbal refuse...into the dustbin where it belongs."

For example, there are good reasons to believe that fact-checking, as it's mostly done, is a fool's fantasy. 

Firstly, once prejudices are established and continuously reinforced, including through the mail, media, or social media, the "tribe" will not believe criticism from any source about a tribal leader's corruption or malfeasance.

Secondly, it is clear that so-called fact-checking, or otherwise restating a message by repeating it (even in the negative), just reinforces the original propaganda. 

Both the believers and the undecided will focus on the original false message and ignore that little word "NOT" or other negation that the fact checker inserts. The negative is as invisible as the cyclists whom car drivers genuinely don't see on the road.

To Counter
There are right ways to counter the emergence of the ideological offspring of Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. These include:-

1. Ignore any verbal refuse designed to distract, deny, or delayby all means, counter with the truth but, please, oh please, stop repeating the words of the originalyou're just being a megaphone for what you oppose.

2. Listen up, friends in the media, there's not much that a bad actor fears more than being ignoredat the very least, please: stop using or repeating a bad actor's name; stop repeating direct quotes in the lower thirds of the television screen; and, stop showing "B-Roll" or photos of a bad actor, instead of doing your job to paraphrase any comments, if needed at all.

3. Encourage leaks of sensitive information that expose lies and fraud.

4. Reverse any serious lie right back onto the liaruse words more like the graffiti artist who sprays a mustache, beard, or horns onto a propaganda poster.

5. Exponentially grow networks of person-to-person communications, especially through personal emails and personalized tweets.

Finally, if you believe you can win doing it right, and you put in the effort to communicate vigorously and well, you will win.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Violent Rhetoric

The Hon. Peter Lalor MLA, Speaker of the 
Legislative Assembly of Victoria, 1880–1887
 by Ludwig Becker (1808?-1861). This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

Not a new phenomenon.

How about, from Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty, or give me death." (in 1775)

Or, from Australia's Peter Lalor at the Eureka stockade: "We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties." (in 1854)

Yet, hearing a broadcast anchor today object to the "violent rhetoric" of the crowd that worships AR-15’s and oversized engines to impose their egos on others still felt new.

What's common among these cases is that the disputants do not allow for solution, other than by winning. What's new is that some of us thought violence was supposed to be contained in civilized society.

Norms & Laws
When propagandist self-dealers rule by sweeping aside norms and laws, all the hand-wringing in the media will only do so much to advance a nation's self-correction. Voting might only do so much too. 

Pundits still talk as if norms and laws are going to spring back, resuscitated and freed from the grip of bad actors. IMHO, no laws and certainly no norms by themselves, even assuming they are diligently and actively executed, will truly control the bad actor whose smarts are every minute pursuing crooked actions. 

National Self-correction
Some political theorists still claim that oversight committees and whistleblower public servants, who see their professional lives destroyed, provide "relentless public scrutiny" and "transparency." 

Unless national self-correction is backed, as appropriate, with punishment, intervention/therapy or disregard of bad actors, then representative democracy faces a rocky road ahead. 
Of course, joining the AR-15 crowd, who want to copy the most infamous barbarians before and since Xerxes crossed the Hellespont to conquer Athens back in 480 BC, might be attractive to barbarians. 

No sane person wants a repeat of the human history that saw loss of lives in battles on a scale equivalent to what COVID-19's short trajectory has caused already. Mostly, some of us would like the pitch of public talk tamped down. We'd like the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness assured.

After all, don't we expect the people we elect to deliver peace of mind? Isn't that why our forebears risked so much to demand better of tyrants?

Sunday, June 14, 2020


The Great Dictator (1940) poster

by United Artists, retouched by Brandt Luke Zorn. 

This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-not renewed}}

Alexander Hamilton warned in The Federalist, Number 8, 20 November, 1787: 

"...the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free."

Although Hamilton was commenting on the effect of chaos from war upon a nation, this is also the clue to why a propagandist stimulates continual chaos.

The foremost writer on this subject, the French philosopher, Jacques Ellul warned long ago that the propagandist needed:

"...continuous agitation... [that was] ...produced artificially even when nothing in the events of the day justifies or aroused excitement. Therefore, continuing propaganda must slowly create a climate first, and then prevent the individual from noticing a particular propaganda operation in contrast to ordinary daily events."

Almost 40 years ago in an address to a Royal Society gathering focused on public information, I drew on Ellul to urge awareness about how we are all propagandized. As the most educated, intelligent people in the community, my audience was the most propagandized, because they:

(1) absorbed the largest amount of second-hand information;
(2) felt some compulsion to have an opinion; and
(3) considered themselves capable of "judging."

When our world view is so dominated with one leader's name, with the media conducting endless analysis and regurgitation of that leader's statements or views, we are being abused.

It's time to imagine a better way.

One lesson from the Covid-19 experience is that social distancing worksby analogy, we should separate ourselves from a propagandist's messages and the "busy work" of reacting to them. You can keep the virus known as propaganda at a distance too.

The actor Peter Finch, in the film Network [here], satirically modeled a first step along these lines when he declared:

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore..."

Otherwise, as Ellul also warned, each of us can become:

"...suited to a totalitarian society, ...not at ease except when integrated in the mass, ...reject[ing] critical judgment, choices and differentiations because... [we] ...cling to clear certainties... assimilated into uniform groups and want it that way."

Internationally, peaceful protests have shown one way to divert such a dismal future. It's time to imagine,  among the many choices, how you will deploy your talents in 2020.

Is there nothing you can do? What will you do?

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Speaking Out

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963

by Rowland Scherman (1937-) National Archive. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-Gov-USIA}} 

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." 

Democracy has a long association with communication. In Montesquieu’s view, the durability of free government depends on a nation’s capacity for self-correction. 

Citizens judge political events from the reports of electronic media, newspapers, or politicians themselves. We have few guidelines for assessing the value of such reports. 

As from the earliest times, improved understanding of what makes public talk effective will empower future rhetors to speak out, as the best assurance that democracy will thrive. 

Educational curricula need much revision to ensure effective teaching of civics. 

Concurrently, it is important to develop in individuals key virtues of western civilization, including justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom.  

The teaching of writing and public talk must develop the responsible principles learned from a rich legacy of thoughtful speakers and commentators. 

Conscious of the resonant comment from George Orwell that "political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable," a public who listen and speak out is the root of democracy.