Saturday, May 5, 2012

Confucius and elections

The rectification of government begins in the rectification of names said Confucius. Language is objective or we could not speak said Socrates. Both recognized an intimate connection between truth telling and language striking the world aright.

What then does the abuse of language in everyday life do to the body politic? It undermines it in subtle yet corrosive ways.

I telephone a company. Their line tells me that they are experiencing an unusually high number of calls. The only problem with the message is that this is always the case. The high number of calls is never unusual. In truth, they do not employ sufficient handlers of calls: period. Yet they provide a convenient lie. We meet this repeatedly: it becomes part of the acknowledged fabric of daily life, barely worth a mention, it becomes woven into our expectations of how the world is.

Likewise the company here is telling us indirectly that while pretending to care for us the customer (indeed that is what the department we are calling is often called), in truth what it cares about are its profits. These it puts before all else, and what it asks itself is: what is the minimum of apparent service I can get away with and remain competitive?

I find it more depressing when the person you eventually reach at the end of this process is actually companionable and nice. It is as if we are both abusing ourselves in a system neither us have made. The temptation is then to think that it has been fashioned by 'others' - the top hated capitalists chewing cigars of Soviet fantasy perhaps? Yet we are all, in fact, complicit - I want my pension fund, say, to yield 7% per annum (rather than 5%), otherwise I will not be able to winter in the Algarve, so the cost efficient screws must bear down, so shareholder 'value' can be extracted and on goes the merry go round.

Another example of this is: the politician's refusal to answer a question. This was much in evidence yesterday and ran through the representatives of all the parties represented. They have been trained (indeed I was once trained) to get their message across but as they do so, again in a noticed and accepted manner, we look and think that they are never straightforward. They corrode truth by the manner of their speaking (even if we agree with what they are saying).

And before we come over all self-righteous, however, what happens when an interviewee does grapple with the complexity of an answer and directly address the questioner (rather than the 'audience' with his or her prearranged message), 'we' castigate them for naivety! Witness 'our' treatment of the out-going Archbishop of Canterbury: an exemplary truth teller, whose speech carries its hoped for truthfulness not only in its content but in its form.

Not until we can out and confront the erosion of the fabric of how we speak will we be able to reconnect meaningful discourse around what we say.

Only 30% percent of people went to vote in the UK on Thursday and we talk of people's detachment from the political process but usually in terms of what is being talked about 'gay marriage' say rather than 'jobs' was a common disaffected Tory description. However, what we need to talk about is how things are said as well as what is said: language itself needs to be made an honest tool again. It is, as Confucius recognised, a necessary and never-ending task of scrutiny and correction.

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