Search This Blog

09 December 2007

The National Conversation - how political language guides the opinions we admit to in public

When I came back to Australia, somewhere in Howard's first term as Prime Minister, I was immediately struck by how much my country had changed.

Somehow, I realised, the choice of language coming out of Canberra was having an effect on the populous.

People who, in the early nineties, would have been afraid to voice their innate (and often subtle) racism, class-ism and other "ism"s of small-mindedness and prejudice, were suddenly vindicated by some of the arguments being made by the government of the time. Ways of defending and supporting the sexism of misplaced "family values", used by the Howard Government, gave similarly minded people a way of voicing their opinion, and sounding like they had thought about it and were expressing a well considered and carefully framed point.

It makes sense, in fact.

A politician's job is to present their position and sell it to as many people as possible - offending the fewest number possible along the way. And as such, the language of either side will always be in danger of softening and excusing extreme positions with wording designed to make the offensive palatable.

And so I found Howard, having taken the middle ground from Keating in the '96 election, was quickly using his power over the national dialogue to excuse fear of the different, to encourage dismissive arrogance towards the unlucky and socially needy, and to foster love for the culture of the individual.

Obviously, I have to admit, the same thing is done by "the other side", when the chance is given. It happens naturally as a consequence of our modern democracy, the influence of national "sound bite" driven media and the culture of celebrity we live in. But considering I'm a staunch supporter of Political Correctness for the sake of social improvement, I think that the future of our planet's ecology is a moral issue and not just a practical one and I don't believe that an obsessive focus on improving fairness in our society can go too far - when "my side" gets a go at guiding the national dinner party conversation, I don't mind. :-)

The point of all of this?

For many long long years, under a Howard Government, I was often asked, by people who didn't know any better, why I hated him so much.

Besides simply being one of those questions that's hard to answer because it's so bleeding obvious that it's hard to explain... it was also difficult for me to remember all the small ways in which Howard had, over the last week, month, year used his influence in a way that annoyed me.

I would end up quoting things like "50% off higher education", "the Tampa affair", "Children overboard"... did I mention he took 50% off the higher education budget in 1996?

I could never remember it all. The details - the little daily niggling bits. So I prevaricated. I sounded soft and unclear - like someone with an instilled view who didn't know why they believed it.

I wanted to make a list. A list of daily frustrations and reasons why he annoyed me... But I'd missed many years of evidence - some of the best stuff had already gone from my mind, I was sure... besides which - after he was elected the 3rd time in a row, I was too depressed and seriously considering leaving the country in defeat.

So! Fast forward another 6 years and Labor finally managed to put up a reasonable candidate, who could out-Howard Howard - and we won.

As I lift slowly out of the fog of depression I have been living in... as I watch the television, and the language out of Canberra takes an about-face... as I start to realise that this is the same process, in reverse - and how much that excites me... I reaslise that I have a chance to start a new list. The list of great moves made by the new government.

I decided to do this the other day when I was sitting watching the television - the announcement in Bali of Australia's signing of the Kyoto protocol. I do not exagerate when I say, it made me cry. I sat in front of the television as tears came to my eyes.

Yes, of course! it's years too late. I know that. But I was so proud. Proud in that way that a parent is when their wayward child doesn't do the wrong thing again. I wanted to cry, because I was so used to news in that arena upsetting me - it shocked me... like someone kneeling and expecting to be beaten finding the strike never comes.

I still twitch every time they mention the "opposition" and I realise they're talking about the coalition - every time they mention the Prime Minister and I have to remind myself I may not hate what he's about to say.

Enough of my this... here is the beginning of my list - it covers the whole first couple of of weeks of the Labor Party in power, all at once - as it has taken that long for me to realise I could use the words "John" and "Howard" in the same sentence, in the past tense.

Go to the list here:
Things that make me happy


No comments: