Battle in Print: Down with cant: up with rhetoric!

Angus Kennedy, 28 October 2008

Feeling words

Barack Obama’s therapeutic rhetoric has been striking in the final days of campaigning in the 2008 US presidential election: ‘In one week, we can come together as one nation, and one people, and once more choose our better history’. This difficult phrase – in what sense can we be said to choose our history, let alone choose it again? – is explained by his appeal to ‘our better angels’ (1). He means to say that we have not been true to ourselves for a while, we have strayed, erred, but now it is time to admit our mistakes and come home, to embrace in a national hug-it-out session.

His conception of a new politics is one of speaking loud and clear to the desire we all have for change, but at the same time redefining change to mean a process of emotional realignment to reality. Many commentators have noticed how the verb to change has been nominalised in this election campaign – we want change, any change will do, not we will change – which speaks to low expectations of course but it is also interesting that Obama here seems to present change as a process of return rather than progression: we must choose our better history, not our brighter future. This is indeed a new form of politics: it is even new compared to the ‘New Labour, New Britain’ rhetoric of Tony Blair, which at least asked us to choose between competing visions of the future. With Obama, we may have the first politician to offer us yesterday in place of tomorrow. We are going backwards not forwards.

Insider talking

The jargon of therapy also recently surfaced in British politics as Jack Straw shared his frustration with the idea that we should recognise the ‘criminogenic needs of offenders’:  he feared that such impenetrable jargon could become a ‘“barrier” between the public and experts’ (2). But it was quickly pointed out that his own Ministry of Justice is a serial jargon user. Earlier this year the Labour MP John Cruddas attacked the language of New Labour for being ‘too managerial and technocratic’, for not ‘emotionally’ connecting (3). Why is it that, if all these politicians want to get in touch with our emotions so badly, they keep talking jargonese?

Jargon is language that is normally the preserve of a small professional grouping: we talk of legal jargon or of thieves’ cant. It is language that has grown up as shorthand within a group to refer to things they do everyday (giving ‘injunctive relief’ say or ‘going upon the dub’) but which appears impenetrable or obscure to us. One characteristic of jargon is a much greater range of terms available to describe something for which, in everyday language, a much smaller vocabulary might suffice: it can be very precise and detailed at the expense of wider descriptive or explanatory power.

Knowledge of jargon can be an open sesame to exclusive clubs and equally can serve to bar their doors to the profane. It can make its users seem overly precise, geeky, and it can render them mysterious and deep. Within the group its use makes perfect sense and actually makes communication and understanding easier and straightforward. When teachers discussing pedagogic best practice talk of ‘learning outcomes’ this is convenient shorthand as opposed to saying every time ‘the things that the pupils should have taken on board by the end of the teaching session’. When, however, a corporate offsite facilitator tells the participants their ‘learning outcomes’, he is borrowing the mantle of the teaching profession to dress up group hugs and cod psychology as valuable life lessons learned.

We can see the appeal of such language to the modern politician. In a topsy-turvy world where New Labour one day is market this and market that and the next appears pretty old-fashioned astride the ever-so commanding heights of RBS-Northern Rock State Enterprises, one can understand the allure of a language that brings with it the cachet of insider knowledge. At least you might sound like you understand the world when you talk of ‘moderated teacher assessments’ and ‘stage not age’ learning: certainly preferable to saying that we politicians have so completely abandoned any pretension of being able to teach children anything that we are actually asking them to evaluate the teachers these days (4).

Doing the business

No surprise either that so much ‘ManagerSpeak’ has made its way into the discourse of contemporaneous politics. The vision thing has been around for a while now of course as have mission statements but it is striking how quickly ‘incentivise’ has shifted out from the narrow preserve of spurring on your sales force to its new exhortatory role in ‘nudge’ politics’ desire to get the best out of all of us (5).

It was precisely in the absence of the vision thing that politicians started to act more like managers and less like leaders. In that brief moment of post-Cold War free market euphoria there was no need for vision any more, only for technocratic tinkerers to keep the engines ticking. And when we found out that something called ‘globalisation’ was actually in charge and consequences could be unexpected, then there was no need for vision either: nothing little old us could do anyway except try and keep the ship steady. There is no alternative after all.

There being no alternative, there is not that much to talk about either. No real debate to be had with the consumers – sorry, the people – about how society should or might be: just open door management – sorry, transparent government – and freedom (of choice) underpinned by effective markets. Jargon takes on undue space and weight and begins to inform our everyday speech because it simply moves into the space once inhabited by debate between politicians and voters: it marks the eclipse of the democratic mandate by the language of the boardroom, the special advisory committee and the minister without portfolio.

Don’t argue

The language of modern politics is one half patronising soft sell (them to us) and one half hard necessities (for us): we have to buy it because that’s the way it is. Which explains why the people who get ahead in politics today are fresh out of marketing jobs, PR firms and think tanks rather than the school of democratic hard knocks. They teach it in university after all: the values and standards relativism of the postmodern turn has a lot to answer for in terms of the spread of jargon with its privileging of obscurantism over the unexamined assumptions of clarity. If we can never really say what we mean, then we can never really mean what we say: so why try and make it easy for you to understand in the first place? Better to draw attention to the difficulties of interpretation with my thickets of jargon. The contemptuous calculation is that you won’t understand me anyway.

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal deconstructs the narrative of the decline of traditional debating societies in America from the early 1970s: for those who struggled to compete with the polished articulacy of the scions of the elite, playing fields were to be levelled by winning with ‘technicalities and sheer quantity of argumentation’. So emerged the postmodern debate where the ‘debate’ centres on the process of debate itself: ‘do you think that debate is multicultural?’ (6) Debate thus turned in on itself has lost its connection with oratory and the art of persuasion, with rhetoric. And so with its ability to touch and influence us. The stage-managed debates of New Labour or a gloves-on Biden versus Palin are a politics by the numbers in which Sarah’s painfully obvious struggle with her learned by rote phrases is the only honest thing about the whole setup.

Governance not government

Traditional conceptions of leadership and of government encompass ideas of driving, managing and directing the people and society. The concept of governance on the other hand speaks more to a notion of steering, a guiding hand, a supporting or enabling framework. Governance, more about the processes and controls of the system of government than government itself, is just the ticket to express the relationship of politician and the state to the people today. A focus on the process and the controls is a good strategy for avoiding blame and dodging responsibility: it serves to objectify ‘The Process’ as being out of our hands almost. The idea of governance reflects a view of subjectivity as being much diminished, in need of crutches. But also as needing to be controlled. For its own good. When something goes wrong the response is always that we need to put the appropriate governance in place. Global recession strikes: we need more regulation. More regulation to control our baser side: our much reviled greedy instincts and over consumption that have led to economic crisis.

Our leaders have certainly lost a great deal of confidence in their ability to describe, understand and shape the world, as Gordon Brown’s long hesitation before acting to bail out the banks demonstrated. Not only do contemporary elites suffer from a crisis of legitimacy – if they are not leading us towards some vision, just what are they there for? – but at the same time they lack a language in which they could give meaning to their own actions and to their place (and ours) in the world. Having rejected the Enlightenment view of our perfectible world, and with nothing much else on offer to replace it, passivity is the safest haven. Decisive action a rough road. And jargon the watchword.

Spin cycle

Politics is now increasingly imagined as a technical exercise of steering the best course between problems rather than setting out competing visions of how life should be lived, how society should and might be organised. In the absence of any such alternatives, and in the wake of the ‘defeat of ideology’, there is no challenge to the bureaucratic psychobabble that has filled the gap left by political oratory. So long as politicians are not held to account for their lack of vision, so long as we let their jargon go unchallenged, so too do we start to take their jargon on board. From social mobility to social exclusion, from mental capital to life skills, we all internalise some part of this new language. We have little choice if we want to communicate successfully with representatives of the state or, increasingly, in the work place.

This is of course partly due to the fact that the ideas of the movers and shakers find ready expression in the media. These ideas become a background to our lives and actually start to shape them. Jargon becomes a vernacular through which we understand the world and our place in it. Not due to any particular inherent strength in the ideas it expresses: on the contrary this ersatz language is relatively easy to see through and to expose. Not hard at all when the contempt of a Hillary Clinton for her audience is such that barefaced lies can be swept under the carpet with an ‘I misspoke’. And certainly there is a media mini-industry now that almost devotes itself to pointing out the latest or most obscure bit of jargon found in the mouths of politicians.

No, the problem is that the exercise of knocking down the jargon and exposing it only gets us so far. We still have to use jargon to get results – just try and ‘interface’ with your local council in language they don’t dub ‘appropriate’ – but now we do it in a knowing self-aware way, cynically dealing in a debased currency. We may get a kick at laughing at Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’ or Brown’s ‘progressive consensus’ but the end result is a deeper loss of faith in our elected leaders and, arguably, in ourselves. Our own sense of self is diminished to the extent that, mocking their jargon while simultaneously taking it on board, we put the spotlight on our own inability to understand the world: we mirror back their own sense of helplessness and passivity. The fallout is lack of belief in each other and our capacities. We really are in partnership. Or at least a destructive cycle of mutual dependency. We need some therapy, Barack says.

Towards A Rehabilitation of Rhetoric

Or maybe we need to give some consequence to our attacks on jargon. We need to construct a new framework for describing the world and we can only do that through the attempt to change it. Modern critics of jargon are too often like those philosophers who have hitherto only interpreted the world. Exposing the latest mystifications remains a cynical merry-go-round that we need to get off.

Real rhetoric is winning language, it is arguments marshalled, words deployed to win an argument and defeat an adversary. Rhetoric as we conceive of it today, however, is so often nothing but a lying stand-in, a promise that won’t be kept. Of course rhetoric has had a bad press since Socrates attacked the Sophists, merely the first in a long line of conservative thinkers who have feared the power of rational argument in the mouths of the people rather than the elites. But the process of arguing your point of view as forcefully and as convincingly as you can is essentially democratic. We need to become ideological again – we need to have ideas that can inspire others. And if we have ideas that can inspire others, that are worth fighting for, that can benefit us all, then we have a duty to convince others of their rightness. We should not be afraid to be rhetorical in the pursuit of winning them over.

Sometimes there is a feeling – so great has the retreat from ideology and grand narratives been – that it is almost ‘inappropriate’ to argue too hard in defence of one’s own vision of the truth. That it is somehow embarrassing to bring it out into the open. That rhetoric is a weapon of mass destruction backing my truth at the expense of yours. We are not children. We should have more faith in the ability of each of us to listen to arguments, to counter the rhetoric, to bring any overweening pretensions back to earth, in the end to make up our own minds. If we don’t use language to engage violently with reality and with bad ideas, then we will continue to be filled with the jargon and the cant of others to the detriment of us all. We need to constitute a new politics, a politics of free and engaged adults, and we need to argue as forcefully and as winningly as we can of its necessity, and what it might mean.


Angus Kennedy is the webmaster for the Battle of Ideas and Culture War websites. He writes for spiked-online and Culture Wars and is producing three sessions at this year’s Battle of Ideas: The Battle for the Reader; What is it to be Educated?; and Learning Jargonese.


(1) Tim Baldwin, Barack Obama tells voters ‘we can’t afford to let up for a second’, The Times, 28 October 2008

(2) Rosa Prince, Jack Straw driven nuts by his own jargon, Daily Telegraph, 27 October 2008

(3) Jason Beattie, Talking sense – Brown to told to ditch jargon or lose voters, Mirror, 6 May 2008

(4) Ed Balls, Oral Statement on National Curriculum Tests, 14 October 2008

(5) James Harkin, (2008), Big Ideas, London: Atlantic Books, p.54

(6) Mark Oppenheimer, For Argument’s Sake, Wall Street Journal, 17 October 2008


Cummings, Dolan (2008), ‘Speaking a foreign language’, Quest, No 100, pp74-76

Fairclough, Norman (2000), New Labour, New Language?, London: Routledge

Furedi, Frank (2008) The ‘credit crunch’ and the crisis of meaning, spiked, 6 October

Poole, Steven (2007), Unspeak™, London: Abacus

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