A plea for more moderate political language is admirable but doomed to failby Sam Leith / October 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? by Mark Thompson (Bodley Head, £25)
“Libtard.” “Racist.” “Cry-bully.” “Denier.” “Zionist.” “Fascist.” “Trot.” “Terrorist sympathiser.” “Cuck.” “Loony.” “Blairite.” The vocabulary of political insult has reached a glorious apogee in our age. In most if not all advanced democracies, now, we contemplate a dynamited centre ground, the rise of populists of left and right alike, and—at least among political and media elites—a sense that public trust in establishment politics is at an all time low. Evidence-based argument has given way to ideological dog-whistling, listening has given way to shouting, and truth has given way to (in US comedian Stephen Colbert’s excellent formulation) “truthiness.” We live in an age of “post-factual politics.” To quote Donald Trump (as Mark Thompson does in his first chapter): “There is great anger. Believe me, there is great anger.”
Even if you regard the above as an overstatement—as, perhaps, the received wisdom of legacy media types and complacent old-school politicians disturbed by the democratic freedoms of the digital age—you would struggle to make the case that it’s business as usual. For better or worse, something is going on in our politics. Mark Thompson, President and CEO of the New York Times, former Channel 4 CEO, former Director-General of the BBC, and sometime Humanitas Visiting Professor of Rhetoric and the Art of Public Persuasion at the University of Oxford, attempts in this book to describe what it is.
Thompson’s concern is not so much with the polarisation of politics itself as with the changes in public language that have gone along with it and—in large part—made it possible. His concern is with rhetoric: with the place of argument in public life. He surveys, chapter by chapter, a political and media scene, and a public, geared to a rhetoric of maximal impact, minimal nuance, nugatory analysis and a positive flight from the attempt to explain or compromise. This is a world in which the lie is all over Twitter by the time the truth has got its boots on.
“This is a world in which the lie is all over Twitter by the time the truth has got its boots on”
Like the scrupulous old BBC hand that he is, Thompson makes a point of taking his examples of populist excess and demagoguery from politicians…