The American midterms today will be just another reminder of democracy’s strong tendency to be overly concerned over what people believe instead of what is true, to be lulled into being persuaded by perception rather than reality. Millennia ago, even Plato warned against the propensity to permit persuasion to overshadow the problem of knowledge. The distinction between blind belief and knowledge has only become more blurred in the social media era.
Take a citizenry, especially of the mass-consumer and tech savvy variety, and the potential is huge for fabrication, half-truths, misnomers, outright lies, and innuendo. While such things remain a temptation in fields like advertising, it is now a reality that politics excels at it. Why? Because such perpetrators know we are vulnerable to manipulation and their commitment to honourable public service is regularly trumped by their efforts to get our vote, or suppress it. And to get it they put great efforts into convincing us of things that actually might not be relevant.
Even as far back as the late-1800s, Joseph Blanchard wrote in his Essentials of Advertising: “The mission of advertising is to persuade men and women to act in a way that will be of advantage to the advertiser.” While such attempts at persuasion have always come part and parcel with politics, in recent years political promotion has become the accepted rhetoric of democracy. The savvy communicator, armed more with party slants than with realistic assessments, has increasingly usurped the plain style of an Abraham Lincoln, Tommy Douglas, Robert Stanfield or Lester Pearson.
Political promotion abhors a vacuum, and the growing space between senior levels of government and local communities provides ample opportunity to trust that jargon can close the distance – a practice unworthy of good politics and integral communities. The professional promoters in politics today utilize any language they can to convince us to side with them. A government can treat us like simpletons by trying to launch negative ads against opposition leaders or by turning us off of politics altogether – either of which suits their purpose if it provides a winning combination.
Our political language is no longer the vocabulary of community or service but the vernacular of the partisan professional. This is, in part, why it sounds so strange and unreal to us. Our communities face serious and debilitating challenges at the ground level, but we are forced to watch while governments pursue their own agendas that will surely suck up the billions of dollars we will require to put a dent in our massive infrastructure deficit as communities.
We are rapidly on our way to becoming the first generation of Canadians to have a mass-produced culture that has little to do with the places where we live. If we are to actually live out democracy in our cities and towns, then we must create a vocabulary, a developing knowledge, that deals specifically with our own strengths and challenges. Part of the reason we experience ever greater difficulties in achieving common action is because we have permitted our common talk to be usurped by the seductive language of politics. South of the border this is playing out in real-time and with powerful intensity in their midterms. People are being told to fear immigrants on the premise that they take our jobs away, when in real terms it is the companies and their executives who have successfully killed millions of jobs in the U.S. in the past two decades. Americans are being encouraged to get angry at a false premise while the real culprits are given a pass. Who suffers in all this? Communities – over and over again.
Georges Sorel, the controversial French philosopher, used to talk about the “language of movement.” A community that cannot find a common vocabulary that brings it together will of consequence become a place of endless and empty rhetoric, devoid of truly human content. Our humanity is found in our gathering, not our isolation or divisions. Our language must rise to that level if we as communities are to take back our future.
Modern historians have taken a new approach to our political past. Great political shifts have traditionally been studied as the interactions between the key political figures, yet for the last decade researchers are learning to define such essential moments in history by studying the language of the people themselves. Hidden in such phrases were the dynamics of change. If we want paradigm shifts in our communities, we’ve got to stop being politically manipulated and start building a local language of meaning. Democracy’s essential value is to be found and enhanced in and through citizenship, not a political order that would seek to tell one thing to distract us while it actually doing another. As George Bernard Shaw put it: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”