The last week of the year is the time when we are reminded of the year’s key events and invited to think about how we might improve our behaviour….A regularly updated blog allows you to recall what was the focus of your attention at any given moment in time – in my case books, artefacts and places – with wars, refugees, election campaigns and results being noises off……
The year began with an attempt to silence satire - so let us end it not merely with a celebration of satire but of the wider spirit of scepticism.
It’s a basic human foible to enjoy seeing the pretensions of the powerful being punctured – but the sad fact is that most of us fall prey to the illusions conjured up by rhetoricians and their masters. The agnosticism which got into my bloodstream in my teens seems to have inoculated me against all false gods…..and indeed against the “suspension of disbelief” to which drama and novels invite us…..That’s perhaps why only essays, satire and realistic art and poetry (eg Brecht, Bukowski, McCaig) have attracted me.
Once we stop thinking about the words we use, what exactly they mean and whether they fit our purpose, the words and metaphors (and the interests behind them) take over and reduce our powers of critical thinking. One of the best essays on this topic is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English language” Written in 1947, it exposes the way certain clichés and rhetoric stifle our thinking capacity – for example how the use of the passive tense undermines the notion that it is people who take decisions and should be held accountable for them.
Fifty years before Orwell, Ambrose Bierce was another (American) journalist whose pithy and tough definitions of everyday words, in his newspaper column, attracted sufficient attention to justify a book “The Devil’s Dictionary” whose fame continues unto this day. A dentist, for example, he defined as “a magician who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket”. A robust scepticism about both business and politics infused his work – but it did not amount to a coherent statement about power.
Twenty years I started to develop a glossary of some 100 words and phrases used by officials, politicians, consultants and academics in the course of government reform. Its updated version - Just Words - offers some definitions which at least will get us thinking more critically about our vocabulary – if not actually taking political actions. While working on it I came across John Saul’s A Doubter’s Companion – a dictionary of aggressive common sense issued in 1994 which talks of the
“humanist tradition of using alphabetical order as a tool of social analysis and the dictionary as a quest for understanding, a weapon against idée recues and the pretensions of power”.
Saul contrasts this approach with that “of the rationalists to the dictionary for whom it is a repository of truths and a tool to control communications”.
In 2008, I left behind a glossary in the Final Report of a project - Learning from experience; some reflections on how training can help develop administrative capacity which was fairly outrageous.
I should emphasise that Just Wordsis not a Cynic’s Dictionary – although I readily confess to the occasional lapse into self-indulgent delight in shocking eg my definition of “consultant” as “a con artist who behaves like a Sultan”. But the topic of politics, power and government reform is too important for cynicism. It does, however, require a strong dose of scepticism.