The best lack all conviction

Mark Thompson: Enough Said Thompson

The Bodley Head, 2016

ISBN 978-1847923127


The simple answer to the question Mark Thompson asks himself  – “What’s gone wrong with the language of politics?” – is that it has split in two. 

On one side, “the weirdly affectless and dehumanized style in which many public policy documents are written.” 

On the other, “honesty of emotion and at least the appearance of being willing to engage with the lowliest members of [a] chosen community.”  Thompson labels these two rhetorics rationalism and authenticism. 

“Something has gone awry with our politics,” he says; but it’s a mark of his intellectual sophistication that he resists simplistic explanations.  Instead, he places public language “in the centre of a causal nexus”: “our institutions and organizations,” he writes, “are living bodies of public language, and when the rhetoric changes, so do they.”  He quotes George Orwell (whose Politics and the English Language he submits to a nuanced analysis): “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”

The dichotomy between gutless rationalism and the “punctiliously immoderate language” of authenticist politics is hardly a new phenomenon. As I read this book, I kept hearing Yeats's words from 1919: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst  / Are full of passionate intensity.”

In our own day, rationalism is evidenced in the impenetrable policy wonkery of government departments and NGOs, which Thompson traces to the gradual breakdown of technocratic consensual politics in the post-war period.  As data has become ever bigger, it has become harder to explain or justify policy decisions clearly.  (Deciding on a third runway, for example, is far more difficult than deciding to build Heathrow in the first place.)  Decision-making must involve compromise, but compromise hardly figures in political campaigning, which has by now become more or less a continuous process.  “The zone of ambiguity and flexibility,” writes Thompson “– that zone where almost all political progress takes place – has become rhetorically insupportable.” Instead, rationalism fetishises dialectic (and evidence), while the authenticist foregrounds narrative.  The rationalist venerates facts and evidence; the authenticist dismisses both as 'factoids', preferring greater, fuzzier, 'truthier' truths.

From a longer perspective, Thompson seeks the roots of both rhetorics in the Enlightenment. 

Rationalism derives from the empiricism of Hume and the positivism of Comte, and authenticism from the counter-Enlightenment writings of Johann Georg Hamann, through Hegel and Kierkegaard to Nietzsche and Heideigger (in whose work it connects explicitly to nationalism). 

Authenticism fuels the contemporary distrust of the political class.  Nietzsche, along with Marx and Freud, figures large in what Thompson calls “the school of suspicion”: all three “detected a layer of falsity and deception in human utterance that must be stripped away before the truth can be revealed.”  The meme of ‘false consciousness’ proliferated in the (very authenticist) counterculture of the 1960s and has now gone mainstream.  The presumption of bad faith in every politician (“Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”) also colours the investigative and analytical journalism that forms such a major part of Thompson’s own career (DG of the BBC, CEO of Channel 4, CEO of the New York Times). 

His analysis of these two competing rhetorics thus spirals, like a widening gyre, to encompass the media, celebrity advocacy and all the other components of an increasingly complex public space.

At every turn, his deep understanding of rhetorical principles – from Aristotle onwards – is leavened by vivid stories drawn from his experience.  He discusses Thatcher and Reagan, Berlusconi and Putin, Clinton and Trump.  He describes the parabolic adventure of spin from Campbell to Cameron.  All the big stories are here – the notorious Belgrano phone-in on Nationwide, Jo Moore’s “a very good day” email after 9/11, the David Kelly tragedy – and, in substantial chapters that repay repeated study, Thompson explores how a failing public language affects the discussion of three contentious issues: the presentation of scientific research, the decision to go to war, and the boundaries of free speech. 

How, then, to address the crisis? Thompson calls up our capacity for prudence – what the Greeks called phronesis – to help us “perform a sense-check on anything that sounds too good to be true.”  One way to develop prudence, he suggests, is to put public language “at the heart of the teaching of civics.”  It’s a tall order: “the humanities as a whole,” he writes, “stand at low tide, judged less economically valuable … than the sciences.”  But if the most important question confronting any society is how we are to live with each other, then becoming skilled in public language must be a first step in addressing it.  Thompson’s words should raise a cheer among all right-thinking liberals: “Let’s teach our children rhetoric.”

And where can we professional rhetoricians seek improvement, at the verbal end?   “The seeds of renewal,” writes Thompson, “germinate in unexpected places:” in the language of the immigrant, the refugee and the marginalized; in satire; and – intriguingly – in hip hop.  And he sees a promising new bud within political discourse itself.  “Though it is often spoken by the weak and dispossessed,” he writes, “there is something unstoppable about the language of fairness.”

Mark Thompson’s remarkable – and remarkably readable – book bulges with useful information and ideas.  For anyone who contributes to public language, Enough Said is essential reading.