Be Careful About What You Hear
Dateline October 30th
Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.
George Orwell (1903-1950)
We humans have long prided ourselves that we are unique in the animal kingdom because unlike all other animals we have language. Of course, we now know that language exists in all mammals and a lot of other species as well, but we console ourselves with the thought that our language is far more developed and extensive. My sense is that it is nevertheless an imperfect and imprecise communication vehicle and we need to exercise great care in the way we speak and even more care in the way we “listen.”
I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that all politicians use speech not to inform but to “persuade.” Not only do they play fast and loose with the facts but they string words together with the sole intention of producing the effect Orwell captures so well
One evolutionary explanation for the rise of language is that it was a beneficial mutation that allowed humans to pass down culture and learning in a way no other animal could. My contrarian sense is that a side effect of this beneficial mutation is that language also enables us to lie and thus gain an advantage in our dealings with our fellow men. However, if we are hardwired to be able to lie I assume we must also be hardwired to detect lies. The problem is, as the saying goes, a lie travels half-way around the world before the truth even gets its boots on. With a nod to George Orwell’s, “The English Language and Politics” (1946) and the various evolutionary biologists and theorists on how the brain works I want to look at the way our politicians use language.
Although, the logical choices to discuss political lying would be to analyze the lunacy surrounding the birther frenzy or the current debate over health care or foreign policy or raising the debt limit I will content myself with a more prosaic example. One of today’s recurring arguments is whether principals and/or school boards should be allowed to fire incompetent teachers without respect to tenure or seniority. Politicians, Republican in particular but more than a few Democrats, consistently make the following case: “In these difficult economic times when we have to lay-off teachers because our children come first we can’t afford to keep the ineffective ones just because they have seniority. We need to keep the best whether they’ve been here two years or twenty-two years.”
My first objection is that we run the risk of becoming prisoner to the words we use. When we use words such as “have” and “can’t” we predispose the listener — and ourselves — to a ‘these are the only options” way of thinking. In fact, we have many other options than just laying off teachers. We could:
– Raise taxes on everybody to keep all the present teachers in the classroom.
– Put a special tax on politicians, stockbrokers and bankers and make them turn over 20% of whatever they earn to keep teachers in the classroom
– Lay-off of 50% of all elected politicians with a similar reduction in their staffs which would probably improve government immensely.
I also object to the use of the word “incompetent” without defining what constitutes incompetence. – Assuming the person hired was competent enough to be hired in the first place we might consider other alternatives, such as re-training, or even consider firing the people who hired her or him!
The current criteria for defining a teacher as incompetent, or a school as failing is whether sufficient numbers can pass a standardized test. Even if we allow that a standardized test is a valid criterion, other variables such as whether kids come to school totally unprepared to learn and with behavioral problems that are directly related to our social policies are not permitted to even enter the discussion. But my major objection is to their assertion that “our children come first.” If our children really did come “first” we could:
– Make teaching one of the highest paid professions in the country, attracting the best and the brightest, in recognition that since our children come first the people we entrust to their care should also come first.
– Provide our children, their teachers and their schools with all the resources needed to succeed including small class size, universal use of technology and fully funding music and art programs which I believe are critical for young children, rather than follow one current model which is to starve the schools to death and then pronounce them dead.
– We could give parents, mother, father or both, a reduced work week, at no reduction in pay so that they could spend more time providing their children with everything from loving care, to a healthy lifestyle, to the positive reinforcement families are ideally situated to provide.
My point is not that these are necessarily better options (although I like them!) but that when politicians say our children come first they are lying. What really comes first for them is balancing the budget while lowering taxes for the already well-off. Worse yet, what seems to really come first for them is maintaining a society of haves and have not’s even when it should be clear by now that it is this very model of inequality that creates the problems for which their solutions will never work.
Since it is unlikely that politicians, liberal as well as conservative, will ever change their deceptive speech patterns it behooves us to improve our critical listening skills and at the same time set a standard for ourselves of speaking (and writing) honestly.
Jack Moscou is a member of The Writers Collective. His book, “Why Not Utopia?” A political platform in search of a party, is available at Amazon and all major book-sellers.