The Cloud of Unknowing
“Rhetoric and the Art of Public Persuasion”
The Humanitas Lecture Series
St Peter’s College
4th-9th November 2012
The Big Society. Eurogeddon. One Nation. Credit Crunch. These are terms we have heard repeatedly, and probably repeated ourselves, over the last three years. But who can define the accurate meaning of each one? Are we to applaud the achievements of politicians and social commentators in finding phrases that survive in today’s Darwinian environment of current affairs or to be alarmed at how such vague coinages can come to hold real political currency? And is this a modern problem or one endemic to democracies throughout history?
Mark Thompson, Oxford’s recent Humanitas Visiting Professor, gave a powerful case for raising the alarm in his lecture series at St Peter’s, entitled “Rhetoric and the Art of Public Persuasion”. At first glance it seemed ironic that the BBC’s ex-Director-General should speak about “the cloud of unknowing” in a week when scandal after scandal broke in his former organisation. However, it soon became clear that Thompson’s concern was not about particular cases of malpractice or mismanagement, but about a broad-ranging and insidious trend that obscures effective deliberation and the democratic decision-making process itself, and stretches back through history to the first Western democracies. That trend is the continuous failure of language as it is used by politicians, the media, and the general public to communicate the nuanced, complicated information essential for achieving effective public policy decisions. And it is a victim of its own all-pervasiveness, commonly referred to as “dumbing-down”.
But this term “dumbing-down”—vivid and alliterative like so many successful catch-phrases—typifies the dilemma. As Thompson argued, “the public language which most people actually hear and are influenced by is changing in ways which make it more effective as an instrument of political persuasion, but less effective as an instrument of explanation and deliberation.” The advocate of a revised policy might describe it as simplified or even stream-lined, meaning it will be cost-effective and efficient, while the critic will say it is dumbed-down, insinuating that corners have been cut and problems ignored. The public hearing the debate know that streamlined policies are good and that dumbed-down ones are bad, without having learned about the policy’s content or either speaker’s ability to improve it.
According to Thompson’s second and third lectures, it is very likely that such a revised policy would still be inexplicable within the confines of a television or radio interview because, he argues, political issues are intrinsically more complicated than in the past. He demonstrates how the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 involved answering more “sophisticated” questions, such as: “have we exhausted all diplomatic ways of ensuring that Saddam Hussein comply with Resolution 1441?”, compared with the straightforward “what is our policy?”, which was answered by Churchill in 1940 with the rhetorical masterpiece: “to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.” Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973 used the term “wicked problem” to describe how social issues, unlike scientific ones, admit no easily implemented or objectively “good” solutions. In the 1990s, that concept spawned the description of particular issues as “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous”, conjoined quadruplets birthed by the US military and referred to by the handy acronym “VUCA”. Yet these terms exist within the rarefied environments of management science and strategic leadership theory; they are not part of regular public discourse. They may diagnose, but do not offer treatment for, matters of public policy such as war in Afghanistan, climate change, the financial crisis, or public healthcare provision.
In the face of these enormous problems what remedy does Thompson recommend? Public language, he urges, must be strengthened so that it can accurately explain matters of public interest. Despite his claim that our problems are fundamentally more complex these days, he shows that history still holds valuable insights by giving us two opinions on democracy from ancient Greece: Thucydides’ Pericles, who proclaimed that great rhetoric signals a thriving democracy of engaged citizens, and Plato, who viewed rhetoric as the antithesis of philosophical truth and democracy as merely a prequel to tyranny. Thompson allies himself firmly with the former. Political rhetoric is not the problem: debate is democracy’s fuel, and without it deliberation, persuasion, and compromise could not take place. It is where rhetoric fails to extend across ideological divisions that these democratic processes begin to falter. Thompson refers to Alasdair MacIntyre’s “conceptual incommensurability” to describe the Manichean impasse clearly visible in American “debates” about gay marriage and abortion; like mathematically parallel lines, the two sides proceed logically along paths that bring them no closer and offer no eventual meeting. Only through substantive discussion can a resolution be reached and without it no resolution is possible other than that imposed by force.
Second, he maintains that public language must not be marketing speak. The spill-over of techniques from advertising and marketing into public life, particularly by figures such as Frank Luntz, is one of the contributing factors to this wicked problem of weak civic discourse, according to Thompson. Advertising uses language to create the illusion that difference exists where there is really very little of it (in his example, between a BMW, an Audi and a Mercedes); whereas branding is the process of attributing certain characteristics to things which they might not inherently possess. Sarah Palin’s “death panels” slogan was a roaring success in terms of news coverage, re-tweets and Google searches. Even once exposed as false, its shadow still lingered, and finally scuppered the section of Obama’s Healthcare Act which provided coverage for voluntary end-of-life counselling. Taken to such an extreme, deception in politics means the triumph of appearance over substance and leads to a decline in public understanding that contributes to bewilderment and disillusionment. At the most basic level, Thompson argues, public language must be true: facts must be checked, and more authority given to facts than to opinion or speculation. The flipside is that the media have a responsibility to report politicians’ words fairly and not to submit to pressure to create news from a non-story, or to condense a subtle development into a headline-friendly victory or crisis. The public, for its part, needs to learn “civic literacy” and be able to differentiate advocacy from exposition, assertion from analysis.
In his most idealistic plea, Thompson proposes that the cure for a diseased public discourse must include not only trust from the public in those political actors whose speech is reliable but also generosity of spirit between groups and individuals holding opposing views. This may sound naïve, as Thompson admits, but it is in fact deeply pragmatic: “In my time… I’ve seen the noun compromise itself become a pejorative and the adjective uncompromising a compliment. To change one’s mind is to execute a U-turn or, in the States, to flip-flop. To meet a political opponent half way is treason…”. The significance of Thompson’s words extends further than even he may have realised, and in a chilling direction. To conclude by returning to Greece, Thucydides anticipated these remarks in his analysis of civil war in Corfu in 472BC, where violence broke out between the island’s oligarchic and democratic parties:
Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given to them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any… In short, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was lacking was equally commended, until even blood became a weaker tie than party… for such associations sought not the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition to overthrow them; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime… The leaders in the cities made the fairest professions: on the one side with the cry of political equity of The People, on the other of a moderate aristocracy; but they sought prizes for themselves in those public interests which they pretended to cherish and, stopping at nothing in their struggles for ascendency, engaged in direct excesses.
Every clause here resonates with issues raised by Thompson’s lectures. Thucydides relentlessly analyses the horrors that occur when a robust public language is no longer at the core of politics. His description is not of a healthy, functioning political system, but one torn apart and beyond repair: the “cloud of unknowing” he described accompanied a storm of blood-thirsty violence. It is an image that those who were present at the final symposium, which took place despite Oxford’s “No Confidence” campaigners audibly and determinedly chanting “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts” throughout, will need to take to heart, whether they were politicians, journalists, or merely—yet most importantly—citizens in a participatory democracy.
Mark Thompson’s talks are available as PDF downloads here. The final roundtable symposium, chaired by Andrew Marr, will be available soon on iTunes U.
Liz Sawyer is a DPhil student in Classical Languages and Literature at Trinity College.