Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

One big rule if you’re writing about politics

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on September 21, 2012

There are people supporting every party and none who can make convincing arguments for a point of view, and who it’s worth reading whether you agree with them or not. But I find they are increasingly outnumbered by people who it’s simply not worth reading.

And there is a simple way of telling who they are — they use canned phrases that seem to come from some political party’s central office.

Mostly these seem to come from Labour supporters at the moment (possibly because Labour are the most popular party, possibly because my social circle skews leftwards). Some of these phrases sound reasonable, others definitely don’t, but they include “Conservative-led government”, “savage cuts”, “our NHS”, “most right-wing government in [insert time period]“, “ConDems”. The problem is when those phrases get used by everyone simultaneously.

It’s certainly not confined solely to Labour, though — “Tony Bliar”, “ZaNuLieBore”, “cleaning up Labour’s mess”, “Red Ed, the unions’ man”… these all have the same effect.

If you’re using these insta-cliches, which tend to spread through political twitterers and bloggers like herpes, then to anyone who is unaligned, or does not share your particular alignment, or even who agrees with you but has an aesthetic sense about the use of words, your post will actually be saying to that person “I have not actually thought about this issue myself, rather I have read a press release from the party of my choice, please ignore me.”

If I read someone saying “We must protect our NHS from the effects of the savage cuts brought in by this Conservative-led government, cuts which are too deep and too fast”, then I know that they haven’t actually thought about the issue themselves and there’s no point reading what they have to say.

If, on the other hand, I read someone saying “We need to protect *the* NHS from government cuts, which I think are far deeper than necessary”, I think “this is a person with whom I could have a discussion, and find out which cuts she thinks are most damaging and what we could do about them. It may turn out that she’s wrong, but it may not.”

Likewise, someone saying “The government need to do this because they’re cleaning up ZaNuLieBore’s mess!” gets instantly disregarded. Someone saying “Realistically, if we want the economy to recover, then some things need to be cut, and while it’s bad, better to cut this than let the recession continue” is, again, someone with whom discussion is possible. They may well be someone I disagree with, but I will at least be disagreeing with *her*, not with a press release she glanced at.

Each of these phrases sound focus-group-chosen to be convincing on an emotional level. “OUR NHS” sounds much more important than “THE NHS”, doesn’t it? But after hearing them a thousand times, they’re not. They’re manipulative, and to me at least they have an actively scary, creepy feel to them, like being surrounded by beings that have been mind-controlled by aliens.

But luckily, there’s a very simple rule you can follow, which will allow you to write convincingly and without people looking at you in the expectation that your faceplate will fall off to reveal the robot underneath. It’s this:

Think about what it is you want to say, and what words you can use to say that as clearly as possible.

It’s a simple rule, but one that’s rarely followed by bloggers and twitterers (and, reading through Orwell’s essays, it appears never to have been followed by pamphleteers).

If you’ve thought about something, and you have a clear idea of what it is you want to say, and you have chosen the words you think will best express your thoughts — chosen them yourself, not picked phrases that have been handed to you by a third party — then people will, when they read your writing, say “That’s a good point” or “I never thought of that”, or “You’re wrong, here’s why…” — all of which are useful reactions if you’re wanting to convince people of something.

If, on the other hand, you string a bunch of stock phrases together, you may well get five hundred retweets from people who already agree with you, but you’ll never change a single mind, except to possibly make some people who did agree with you before disagree with you in disgust.

(Doctor Who post will be up tonight, nearly a week late…)

12 Responses

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  1. prankster36 said, on September 21, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    You don’t even KNOW how bad this has gotten with American Republicans, especially since most of their canned phrases are just empty insults or completely detached from reality. There literally doesn’t seem to be anyone out there worth engaging in a debate, which is frustrating. They’ve become the party of trolls.

  2. [...] I’ve only just seen it. Some figures and projections in there that will keep you up at night. One big rule if you’re writing about politics – Andrew Hickey has a simple rule to work out who’s worth reading and who’s not. [...]

  3. Mercy said, on September 22, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    The Mitt Romney 47% gaffe is a good illustration. Firstly consider that the people you are complaining about know, in some sense, that they are regurgitating talking points, and they are doing so on purpose because it makes their ideas easily accessible and they want other people to regurgitate those talking points- they think they maintain a more nuanced point and you could sit down for a discussion with them and find your impression was wrong. In terms of the “labour supporters” you are talking about, I have no doubt they are correct. I know plenty of people labour-critical socialists who have thoughtful opinions on issues but will try and work in popular buzz-words on, say, twitter for rhetorical reasons.

    But you can’t keep saying things too long without coming to believe them, and you end up like Mitt Romney, vehemently spouting the prole-feed. That said I don’t see how “savage cuts” or “conservative-led government” fit into that category- they are emotive, but they aren’t really simplifications never mind lies. And the latter, IIRC, started in response to the observation that most of the hate for the coalition fell on the lib dems – I know you must find it unpleasant to have your party rhetorically marginalised but I suspect in a few years time you’ll wish such efforts had been more successful.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on September 22, 2012 at 12:37 pm

      It’s not a matter of whether they’re simplifications or not, or even whether they’re truthful or not. What matters is whether they’re being used by thousands of people simultaneously, If someone uses those phrases they’re not saying something they’ve actually thought themselves. Instead they’re letting someone else do the thinking for them — in which case, why should I listen to them, when I could just listen to the person who had the original thought?

      • Mercy said, on September 23, 2012 at 11:52 am

        But the examples here are just letting someone else do the thinking about rhetoric for you. Phrases like “savage cuts” don’t spring straight from ear to lip, they’re a result of people noticing someone else articulating something they already believed, and copying their more emotive phraseology.. Arguably the start of a process that leads to that ear-to-mouth mindless talking point pathway, but the significant thinking in the examples you quoted isn’t necessarily outsourced.

        Indeed it couldn’t be because there isn’t any, those are all (except maybe “too deep, too fast”) boilerplate phrases, and your suggested substitutions are equally vague, just delivered in more neutral language. I brought up the 47% thing because that’s a genuine talking point: a canned argument, a description of the way the world works the speaker doesn’t truly understand beyond that it’s a thing their side believes. In other words it’s a catchphrase masquerading as an argument. The things you quoted are just catchphrases, why *shouldn’t* they be viral?

        • Andrew Hickey said, on September 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm

          The suggested substitutions are vague because the things they’re substituting for are not particularly well thought-out, and I was trying to rephrase the statements they were making while keeping the sense. I suspect though that if someone were to actually try to avoid that kind of statement when expressing their *own* thoughts, that they’d end up saying something more interesting instead. (I’m not expressing myself very well in this comment — I’ve had some trouble sleeping recently and am not at my most articulate).

          As for “why *shouldn’t* they be viral?” — Why *should* they? What is the point of repeating something in precisely the same words that hundreds of other people have already used? It’s not saying anything new, not telling the listener anything they don’t already know… it’s just noise.

  4. TAD said, on September 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    We call what you’re talking about “talking points” here in the US. People who regurgitate the latest “talking points” are rampant throughout the media here. I feel the same was that you do when I hear these people…..I roll my eyes and lose interest in them almost instantly. You’re right, they haven’t thought out the issues, they’re just memorizing a few of the latest catch-phrases and repeating them.

    I’m a global-warming skeptic, for example. I don’t believe or disbelieve……..rather I don’t think the evidence is conclusive. Conclusive evidence will always win me over however, and I do my best to keep an open mind on the issue. That said, I find it almost impossible to have a sane discussion on global warming with anyone on *either* side of the issue. I seriously doubt that 90% of the people have investigated the evidence at all, beyond memorizing a few key points that support their argument. On top of that, people get irrationally emotional too……people on BOTH sides, that it becomes impossible to talk with them. Most people aren’t interested in listening to what other people have to say either….they’re only interested in ranting at you and telling you how evil you are.

  5. rankersbo said, on September 23, 2012 at 10:54 am

    I agree with you on pat stock phrases, these have irritated me for a long time.

    I wouldn’t otherwise lump in childish names (ZaNuLiBore, ConDems, NuWho) etc with the other sorts of stock phrases, though.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on September 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm

      I wouldn’t actually put NuWho in with the other two there. It’s a little childish, but not actually abusive in the way those others are (I’ve used it myself, and would never use the other two, because I don’t mind being childish on occasion but I’ve no interest in personal attacks).

  6. Andrew RIlstone said, on September 23, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    You could probably simplify by just saying “don’t pay any attention to anyone who has ever used the phrase ‘hard working family'”. “Vast majority” comes a close second.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on September 24, 2012 at 8:36 am

      I couldn’t agree more about “hard working family” — though it’s more a term used by politicians than by tweeters/bloggers. As for “vast majority”, I’m afraid I’ve almost certainly used that one myself, though I try not to use phrases like that — I’m sure I’ve said something like “the vast majority of Russel Davies’ episodes of Doctor Who are a bit crap” or “the vast majority of Beach Boys songs recorded after 1977 are unlistenable”.

  7. [...] One big rule if you’re writing about politics by Andrew Hickey on Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!. Say it in your own words, rather than trotting out [...]


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