political talk

Relations between words and deeds are rarely straightforward. Some deeds are performed by affirmation of the deed itself. The marriage ceremony offers a familiar example. Imagine that Jennifer Smith and Stephen Jones after living together ‘in sin’, as some of their relatives see it, decide to step away from this sin by getting married. They organise a state and/or church-approved ceremony in the course of which an authorised person asserts ‘I now declare you man and wife’ (or another authorised form of words to the same effect). Instantaneously, where previously there had been two separate people, there is now a married couple and, unless she decides to hold on to her father’s family name, Jennifer Smith becomes Jennifer Jones. Of course, Stephen might choose to change his last name instead, turning him into Stephen Smith, but he could not do so as part of the same ceremony. The point of this example is that the words are the deed: the pair are married if and only if an authorised person, in the course of a state/church-sanctioned ceremony, asserts that they are married.

In most other cases, relations between words and deeds are more complex. An undocumented immigrant does not suddenly become a law-breaker when, as often happens in Australia and the USA, an authorised person, declares him /her to be ‘illegal’. And there are cases where deeds take the place of words, for example, when police, a criminal gang, IS or the US military employ violence to ‘send a message’ to their opponents

In the case of politics, which is my concern here, talking (and writing) are integral to its existence. At one level, political action by Governments of independent states are matters of interacting with their own populations (and with individuals and public or private organisations within them)which they do, in part, by issuing instructions such as ‘No Dogs, Bikes or Skateboards’, ‘No parking’ or ‘No right turn’. Governments issue instructions on how to apply for a driver’s licence, a visa or identity card, a sickness, unemployment or other benefit, along with appropriate forms for the applicant to complete. A Government’s political action may involve interaction with the Governments of other states through diplomacy, declaring War or threatening them by asserting sovereignty over hitherto unclaimed areas of land or sea. Within their own jurisdiction, their political actions include declaring States of Emergency, Public Holidays, periods of national mourning or new policies.

At another level, an individual’s active involvement in politics whether through political parties or social movements, involves participating in, and even organising, meetings, listening to others talk and sometimes having one’s own say. Electoral competition between individuals and between parties invariably requires a lot of talk

Words are essential components of political life. Thus ‘talking politics’ may refer either to the talking (or writing) that goes on within politics or to talking, or writing, about it. Regarding the first, while the words used are often important, we should be careful not to judge political actions by the words that perform them. Treaties with ‘free trade’ as part of their names, for example, are not always concerned with freeing trade, while some have been more concerned with protecting the ‘intellectual property’ of large chemical, IT and other businesses.

Unfortunately, the compulsion to turn thinking into entertainment – through, for example, popular science shows, Q&A, TED talks, the Sydney Festival of (tired but once-) Dangerous Ideas and Writers Festivals all over the place – leaves little room for serious examination of political talk in Australia and other anglo ‘democracies’.

There are times when the usage of words in political talk is worth treating seriously. My first two posts, from November and December 2015, are responses to wild talk by Australian politicians, security specialists and media commentators about the alleged threat of ‘radicalisation’. ‘Against radicalisation’ is an angry rant about the concept of ‘radicalisation’, which is a seriously bad and destructive idea. I offered this piece to several Australian media outlets, both print and on-line, all of whom, with the notable exception of the AIM Network, rejected it, as I should have expected. The Folk Devils paper takes up two influential concepts, ‘Folk Devils’ and ‘Moral Panics’, from 1970s academic criminology to argue that, in spite of real limitations, these concepts can help us to understand the current ‘radicalisation’ scare. A third posting, ‘Politically-Motivated Men’ coming in December 2015, examines what else is going on when professional politicians and commentators use ‘political’ as a pejorative term in order to dismiss political views or actions with which they disagree. A good example is the Australian ex-Treasurer Joe Hockey’s responses to Labor and Green criticism of his two budgets which he could only attack by clling them ‘political’. Finally, if only for the moment, ‘Whistling the Dog’, written some time ago, criticises the use of the term ‘dog-whistling’ by commentators on the Left to condemn what they saw, not unreasonably, as the duplicitous ‘racist’ stance of some members of the Coalition.