Politicians like to talk to the public like they're children. Because of this, the tenor of our politics resembles that of a kindergarten class deciding who gets the last red smartie on a rainy day.
Perhaps this is because our modern methods of communication force them to interact with the public through means—newspapers, television, radio, the internet—which, for any number of reasons, have become purveyors of mindless barbarism. Of course, this is not new. George Orwell noted some time ago "that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language" and that journalism was right at the heart of it. Today, that chaos is alive and well. Those inclined to doubt this should watch question period on a regular basis and then watch the evening news. Keep your eye open for how the latter shapes the former.
The biggest problem here is not that politicians' speeches are debased by such tired and misleading phrases as "tough on crime" or "right-wing ideologue", but that the debased tenor of their speech becomes the habit of mind, and therefore speech, and therefore action, of all the citizens of this country. And such speech is not only ripe for harsh, childish, and generally unenlightening debate but it fails to recognize the humanity of those we're speaking with. It demeans and erodes our common life together.
So, what do we do? I suggest that—contrary to popular opinion—the solution is not for the conversation to grow up, but to be more authentically childish. After all, it's not the fact that politicians speak to us like children, it's that they and the journalists who cover them take the tone of uppity school marms who secretly despise their children. We should demand that our politicians and journalists treat us as respectable children, not spoiled brats.
And it's here that we should take the advice of another great writer who knew a thing or two about communicating to children. In 1956 C.S. Lewis responded to a young American fan of his Narnia books named Joan Lancaster, who wrote to him asking for advice on writing. In describing good writing he outlined five points that "really matter."
- Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else.
- Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don't implement promises, but keep them.
- Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean "More people died" don't say "Mortality rose."
- In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."
- Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
Debates among politicians and within the citizenry will be much improved if we apply this advice to our political dialogue, or even our consumption of the pablum our media gives us. If journalists and politicians, through their use of the English language, ask you, "Please, will you do my job for me?" I suggest do it!
If you hear a politician speak in a way that can mean any number of things, write them to find out what they really mean. If you hear the words "implementation of key government programs" find out what those programs are; who will it affect, and how? How will our lives or work be changed by the government's actions? If you hear a minister talk about "kinetic activity in an operating theatre" ask him how many troops and civilians were killed. In short, ask them to explain things to you like you're a two-year-old. If they don't give you an answer, don't vote for them.
I realize that this won't fix things. But, as Orwell notes, "one cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits."