The death of language

This comes from an Irish Times column by Fintan O’Toole. He’s writing about a recent interview given by Brian Cowen, the Irish Taoiseach [Prime Minister]. But he could have been writing about any member of the UK Con-Dem coalition government.

For two years now, official speech has been a one-way process. The Government decided that it would do things of immense consequence, knowing there was very little public support for those actions. Never in the history of the State has a government adopted policies of such significance in the absence of any kind of public consensus in their favour.

Once you go down that road, real communication ceases. The Government can talk, but it cannot listen. Anything it would be likely to hear – public opinion, objective evidence, expert analysis – would tend to undermine its chosen certainties. So the talk has to be one-way. It has to be aimed, not at engaging in debate, but at getting across the idea that there is nothing to be debated. There are no choices, no alternatives, no legitimate differences. The purpose of all official speech is not to communicate, but to kill communication.

This is why the question hovering over all the fuss around Brian Cowen’s infamous interview is not “was he hung-over” It is Dorothy Parker’s response to the news that president Calvin Coolidge had died: “How could they tell?”

If you read the transcript without listening to the voice, Cowen’s interview on Morning Ireland is almost indistinguishable from the one he gave a few days earlier to RTÉ radio’s This Week programme. And that in turn is the same as almost every interview he has given in the last two years.

This is not because Cowen can’t communicate. In private, or on semi-formal occasions, he is articulate and engaging. It is because, as Taoiseach, he must speak a language as dead as Manx or Crimean Gothic. When words are used, not to stimulate discussion, but to deny the possibility of discussion, they die. They wither into verbiage. They become spin that has stopped spinning, propaganda that no one expects to fool anyone. And the first official language of the State is no longer Irish or English, it is this system of empty sounds, spoken into a void.

Whenever politicians invoke TINA (there is no alternative) you know they’re lying. Or kidding themselves. There’s a lot of lying and self-delusion going on at the moment.

Thanks to Lorcan Dempsey for the link.