Talking the talk

Conor McGlynn

Deputy Comment Editor

The run-up to an election is the time when politicians typically lay out their plans for the betterment of their constituencies and their country. They try to demonstrate their commitment to change and to improving community life. In this year’s local elections those running for council positions have put forward plans both small and large which they hope will lead to a higher quality of life in their political domains. However, they also provide a wealth of examples of a particular practice in Irish politics: the use of clichés and media tactics to give the impression that they, the politician, are making a commitment to something, without really saying anything at all.

“It’s easy to talk the talk but the time has come for me to put my money where my mouth is.” This is not a stylised example. It is an actual quotation from a statement made before Christmas by Mr Noel Rock, a Fine Gael politician running in the local government elections in the Ballymun ward of Dublin. Mr Rock was replying to criticisms that his ‘Noel Rock No Expenses Pledge’, where he promised not to take any expenses payments, was nothing more than an attempt to gain coverage in the media. The race for local government has so far provided a plethora of such remarks. “It is not enough to talk about change – actions speak louder than words” was another coming from Chris Andrews, an ex-Fianna Fáil TD running in the election for Sinn Féin.

What is the problem with using clichés? Is it just snobbery on the part of people who object to their simplicity, and who think that there is a ‘correct’ way to speak English? This may well be the case in ordinary, quotidian life. Clichés can be useful in everyday discourse. They facilitate general conversation by providing people with readymade, readily understood phrases which easily articulate ideas.  However, the problem in political debate is that they often give a politician the appearance of saying something without really saying anything at all. In his essay “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell identifies two features of this kind of language. One is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The phrases are vague and indefinite; they can mean anything or nothing. They recycle the thoughts of others and try to pass them off as insight or wisdom. Such banality and lack of concreteness becomes the mark of political talk, and leads to a general lowering of the level of public debate.

The examples seen in the run-up to the local elections are indicative of a wider trend in Irish politics. Politicians often use tactics, such as clichés, to avoid real discussion of tricky issues. One example of this is the interview technique called the ‘block and bridge’. This involves a politician who is confronted with a question they would prefer not to answer, acknowledging the question, and then quickly moving to another topic with which they are more comfortable. For instance, saying “That’s an excellent question, but the one that needs to be asked is…” is a classic way of moving an interviewer back onto a politician’s key message. A brief rebuttal such as “That’s not the relevant issue” or “That’s a hypothetical question” redirect the interview, while phrases such as “Let me be very clear about this…” can then focus listeners’ attention, and make them think that the politician has really dealt with the issue. Listen to any interview given by certain current government ministers for a master class in this technique.

These sorts of tactics prevent real political debate, and make people lose confidence and trust in their public representatives. They fuel the misconception that politics is something which by its very nature is slippery, indefinite, and duplicitous. When people get used to this behaviour from their elected representatives they stop expecting more. Disingenuous tactics reinforce attitudes that “They’re all the same”, and make people further disillusioned with the democratic system in their country. We saw a particularly cynical attempt to manipulate this perception in the run-up to the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad, when Fine Gael campaigned on the basis that it would mean “Fewer politicians”. It is precisely these sorts of schemes that create the attitude in people that says fewer politicians would be better.

We should demand more of our politicians. They should be called out by the media when they use these tactics in interviews, and when they use clichés in election literature. The problem is not just that this kind of language reflects poorly on our politicians, but also that it creates poorer politicians. As Orwell says, “[Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”. Political language is worth more than hackneyed phrases and careful evasions.