What do we hear when a politician speaks? What do we expect to hear?
Whatever we think about the political classes, I think one observation that can be made with confidence is that when a politician speaks it is with what you might call “expectations of action”. Whether they like it or not, when a politician expresses an opinion it is always with a dimension that is meaningfully understood as intercessional. In short, we expect politicians to stand by their words.
There’s not much wrong with this. And yet, I’d like to draw a comparison with the discourse of philosophy. This is a field where hypothesizing is as natural as breathing and thought experiments are toyed with like Lego. Such questions as “Is it right to kill one person in order to save five others?” or “Given the continued growth in world population, is having children morally acceptable?” are commonplace. Can you imagine a politician getting pulled into such discussions? I think not.
The point I want to make is this: political discussion is both enlivened and curtailed by our eagerness to spot an equivocal thought. A politician is there to make decisions, and that means that when they say something is comes with the expectation that something will change as a result of it. The ears that are tuned into and make news from the cacophony of political debate are just waiting to attribute hard intention to mere words.
Politicians can not risk the blight of uncertainty because these days politicians live and die by the integrity of their policy pledges. The difficulty is that whatever they say they are expected to stand by it. It is an ideal of definitiveness that most of us could barely begin to contemplate.
One elongated whine that pours out of the public mouth in respect of politicians is how they never answer questions properly. They are evasive swines, aren’t they? Try asking one of them a simple yes-or-no question and all you get is a shuffle of the cards. Try to pin them down on a decision that is somebody else’s to make and you’ll get nowhere. And if you have designs on drawing a politician into a hypothetical quarrel, forget it. In our society politicians are trained from the moment they pin a coloured ribbon to their lapel to tread very carefully when it comes to talking off-piste. From then onwards they live with the expectation that everything they say might very well be taken literally. That’s why they don’t go in for metaphor, simile, humour or poetry any more. The battle that plays out on our televised debates and radio broadcasts is about who can come across as the most sincere, at whatever cost to the merits of lyrical or theoretical discourse.
So what do we hear when a politician speaks? An ingratiating oil-slick of condescension? A shackled PR exercise of hyperbole and chicanery? A watery-eyed extenuation of “exceptional” circumstances? Whatever it is, most of the time we don’t like it.
Exactly how accurately, in the full span of time, a politician’s utterances are manifested as policy is a matter of memory and the possibility of preserving meaning over time. It is the job of two poor interns working in diametric opposition, one for the politician and one for the other side, to trawl through the archives and assemble a case, for and against, that certain ideas were or weren’t committed to when certain things were or weren’t’ said at certain times in certain contexts.
I could not be a politician. To triple-check everything I said would be a burden too far. Rarely are writers’ words taken seriously, either as emphatic statements of belief or as manifestos of action. A writer can take up various positions without the lambasting charge of hypocrisy. A writer can speak with multiple voices, can entertain the point of view of the most despicable mind, and can vouch for the sincerity of their ideas one day and happily contradict them the next.
Perhaps, thankfully, the idea that politicians should first and foremost act as exemplars of honesty and frankness is not an expectation awarded to writers.
Either way, whilst I’m not in favour of letting politicians off the hook when it comes to monitoring the correlation between what they say and what they do, I sometimes wish we could let them speak freely, as we permit philosophers and writers to do, for the chance of enriching the debate.