Declaring war against bluster and rhetoric

Frank Furedi kicks off his new monthly column on Hollow Thoughts by reclaiming the word ‘conversation’ from our illiberal rulers.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics

In 2012, Frank Furedi will be writing a monthly column on the hollow words and thoughts of twenty-first-century political life. This month, he reclaims the word ‘conversation’.

I never thought I would have an allergic reaction to the word ‘conversation’. I have very happy recollections of the intense emotions that can be provoked through delicious, thought-provoking conversations with people on one’s own wavelength. Through intimate conversations, we cultivate the signals that give our personal communication special meaning. Even small talk plays a role in the interchange of thoughts and ideas. Sadly, however, ‘conversation’ has been hijacked by public figures who try to repackage their monologues as genuine dialogue.

Increasingly, the word conversation is used in an entirely rhetorical fashion and has become disassociated from the intimate act of talking between engaged individuals. In the hands of public figures, ‘conversation’ has become a self-conscious, pre-planned exercise in impression-management. I remember feeling that a very human word had been corrupted when Tony Blair launched New Labour’s ‘Big Conversation’ in November 2003. He said his aim was to initiate the biggest-ever consultation exercise with the electorate. In the real world, however, you launch boats, not conversations.

The very idea of ‘launching’ a conversation shows how meaningless and hollowed-out the concept has become. Conversation emerges from human interaction; it is not something that needs to be announced, promoted or celebrated. A public conversation is a contradiction in terms. The real aim of a ‘public conversation’ is to influence public opinion. Those who initiate such an exercise are really taking part in a public performance. Such performances often take the form of an animated public figure having a Q&A with a handpicked audience. Conversation with a capital C has been embraced by a variety of interest groups desperate to convey the idea that they are concerned about our views. But when you have a Big Conversation, can Big Brother be far behind?

Big Conversations are often promoted by people who use that disingenuous term: deliberative democracy. Adherents to the idea of deliberative democracy present it as an enlightened alternative to representative democracy. Deliberative democracy usually involves having a small forum where people can engage in face-to-face conversation and allegedly have time to reason with one another. It is said that deliberative democracy gives meaning to participation, since the participants are involved in a dialogue that directly leads to a discernible outcome. But the consequences these decisions have are rarely discussed. This is not surprising, considering that deliberative democrats believe that deliberation is an end in itself. The focus on consultation displaces the old idea that democracy should be an instrument for genuinely involving the public in the running of society, and replaces it with a stultified, formal ‘conversation’. As one academic study has argued, this approach ‘renders the concept of democracy redundant’ as it turns it into a ‘purely consultative process’ (1).

In these situations, ‘consultation’ is turned into a tool of management masquerading as genuine deliberation. The demand for deliberation always comes from above, and the terms of these ‘public conversations’ are always set by professional consultants. The process of deliberation depends on ‘procedures, techniques and methods’ worked out by experts (2). The exercise itself is overseen by professional facilitators, whose rules are really designed to assist in the observation and management of the participants. These phoney conversations are not forums where the participants interact as equals – rather, skilled facilitators are employed to create the right kind of environment and desirable outcomes. One writer sings the praises of ‘citizens’ juries’ – a common form of deliberative democracy – by saying that such juries rely on ‘trained moderators’ who ensure ‘fair proceedings’ (3). With zero self-consciousness, the writers endorses such a highly manipulative environment as being superior to ‘liberal institutions’, which apparently only encourage passivity amongst citizens (4). What we have is a pretence of deliberation and a reality of manipulation.

Deliberative democracy is neither deliberative nor democratic. Rather, it is about promoting propaganda through the pretence of having an open conversation. However, when it comes to manipulating the public imagination, ‘deliberative polling’ beats deliberative democracy to the finishing line. Deliberative polling stage-manages an allegedly open discussion on a controversial issue in order subliminally to alter people’s views and convictions. According to one account of its use, the beauty of this exercise is that ‘many participants changed their voting intentions as a result of the dialogue’. The author, Carne Ross, offers a scenario where, prior to an exercise in deliberative polling, 40 per cent of people surveyed said they would vote for mainstream centrist parties, 22 per cent for socialists, nine per cent for centrist liberals and eight per cent for greens. However, by carefully finessing the wording of the choices available to the participants, the deliberative manipulators successfully increased the number of participants who wanted to ‘emphasise the fight against climate change’ from 49 to 61 per cent (5).

Deliberative democrats are not shy about acknowledging that their support for conversational forums is contingent upon the participants reaching the ‘right’ decisions. Deliberative democracy is often promoted on the basis that it provides an environment conducive to changing people’s minds and having them adopt the ethos of the forum’s organisers. Deliberation is the preferred method of communication, because it can be a useful tool for transmitting the outlook of the organisers. To ensure that this objective is achieved, the group’s interpersonal dynamic is carefully controlled. To prevent the spontaneous emergence of informal group leaders, ‘most moderators are alert to the manner in which deliberations can be dominated by confident and outspoken individuals’, assures one assessment of deliberative democracy (6). It appears that deliberative democracy works best when ‘confident and outspoken individuals’ are put in their place.

The depiction of an exercise in brainwashing as a new form of democracy shows that political rhetoric is just that these days – empty rhetoric. It is a sign of the times that a procedure that could have come straight out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four can be presented as an enlightened alternative to representative democracy. The assumption that the professional facilitator has the moral authority to determine how people should think and emote speaks volumes about the patronising attitude of today’s ‘deliberators’.

Orwell, in his famous 1946 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’, rightly expressed concern about the standard of political rhetoric in his time. He was also perturbed by the way in which jargon was used to obscure reality. ‘In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible’, he observed. He noted how things such as British rule in India, the Stalinist purges or the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima were justified through euphemisms and meaningless phraseology. Today, too, political rhetoric continues to be used to justify the indefensible.

My new year’s resolution is to devote more time towards exploring the public language of twenty-first-century society. To that end, I will be writing a monthly column on spiked titled ‘Hollow Thoughts’. The aim will be to re-appropriate the sort of language that could help ensure that public debate really is a debate, rather than an exercise in manipulation and impression-management.

In February’s ‘Hollow Thoughts’ column: Inclusion.

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