Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Policy, Rhetoric, and Public Bewilderment: The Speech of Mark Thompson

Standing at the bus stop impatiently waiting for the next bus I knew I should have left my room earlier. It was 5:15 p.m. and I was going to be late for one of the Oxford Universities public lectures. They hold several each semester but this was one of the few that I was actually interested in and fit in my timetable. This lecture was the opening speech for the inaugural lecture series called Humanitas. A visiting professor will come each year to speak on his area of expertise in the humanities area. This first year the speaker was Mark Thompson. He is the outgoing Director General for BBC, a post he took up in 2004 and he has recently been announced as the new president and chief executive of the New York Times.

Finding the lecture venue (at St. Peter's College chapel) was fairly straightforward and I was relieved when I walked through the door that they had not started on time. I sat down near the back next to a guy that I presumed went to St. Peters, said a brief hello and took out my pen and pad in preparation to take notes. I picked up the habit to always have something to take notes with when listening to a speaker from my dad, you never know what you are going to hear that will stick with you. This inaugural lecture was titled, "Is Plato Winning the Argument?" and here is the description straight from the bulletin:

Drawing in particular on recent examples from American and British healthcare reform, Mark Thompson asks whether the language of politics is changing in ways which threaten public understanding of and engagement with the most important issues of the day.

He was absolutely fantastic. The hour and a half flew by, and with some remarks spoken between the guy next to me (turns out he is from st. peters and is in London studying to get his masters in middle eastern politics) I learned a great deal.

Mr. Thompson firstly welcomed everybody and said that since this is Oxford he was sure there were knights and lords in the audience which got a chuckle and made me want to ask if there really were any in the audience. He then got directly onto business. Mr. Thompson firstly brought up Obamacare, how it was seen by both views and the the fight America had in 2009 about a phrase that was penned due to a specific article in the bill that had everybody up in arms. This phrase was "Death Panel." He talked about how such a simple term can lead to the biggest destruction and he asked who is to blame? Politicians? The Media? People these days are biased against understanding and demonizing our opponent seems to only create more of a problem, not form a solution.
Mr. Thompson then went on to say that traditional political debate is not dead and that rhetoric is dead; nor is real information gone (even though we have more of it today than ever), but for a series of reasons, we are seeing growth in knockout blows rich in language, but exceedingly cryptic in meaning.
Everything these days are tangled up but if people just decided to talk using effective public language, the average person can understand and then contribute more into public policy. Mr. Thompson also says that when you act without proper debate you get bogged down. Public language is gaining more and more favor these days. The example he used was the "Death Panel" again. We remember that it stands not for section 1213 of Obamacare but for Obamacare as a whole, and we 'see' Obama as Hitler and the government as the Nazi soldier's marching people toward their death camps. Even Sarah Palin alluded to the fact that this was a battle of good versus evil. The public language impact of "Death Panel" is MAXIMAL. And it is purely partisan-making Obamacare not easier, but harder to understand. This is a pattern of public language: avoidance. It is not straightforward, but a cryptic message. Public language is never the language of understanding (I guess that's why politicians love it so much), and in this day and age anything that can be turned into a linguistic weapon is. Also in this day, to meet a political opponent halfway is treason; it is better to fail purely than to partially succeed-Ideology more important than success.

Now forgive me if any of that was confusing, I literally just re-wrote what I had on my notes. It was a bit hard to follow him as he was speaking extremely quickly. But I did agree with a lot of what Mr. Thompson was saying and it makes me wonder how much of anything anyone says is true (in terms of media and politicians). With the election tonight (which I am staying up for) that is sure to be close, it will be interesting to see what the different media channels are doing/saying as well as looking at the candidates themselves. I took a lot away from the speech and I hope to get back Thursday evening to see his final speech. But for now, GO ROMNEY!

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