Words are marvellous, aren’t they? Even Humpty Dumpty recognised that those who make words mean whatever they want them to mean have power.
We witness the President of the United States using language in a very particular way.
His hypocrisy is boundary-free. It is not proving hard to find tweets from his past that condemn him in the present – for example, his criticism of Barack Obama for playing golf and
taking holidays have not stopped Donald Trump from exceeding his predecessor in both.
Yet, it is as if whatever was said in the past can now be magically forgotten or ignored. And the only reason this corruption of language and political discourse is possible is because we allow it to be so.
That is why protest is so important. Right wing or left wing models of social or economic policy broadly offer people different approaches to a similar end: the common good and the prospering of a people.
But what we are seeing now is of a different order. The corruption of language and meaning, the dismissal of truth, the casual yet deliberate assertion of fantasy as fact, all these contribute to a dangerous normalisation of lying, misrepresentation and hypocrisy.
What’s new, you ask? Hasn’t it always been thus?
Well, yes. But, it has also been protested against, found unacceptable, and held to be shameful. The fact of past general corruption does not legitimise contemporary specific corruption, nor should it excuse us from naming what is wrong now.
As an Englishman, it is uncomfortable enough watching the disgraceful Trumpian drama unfolding across the Atlantic. But I am also reading Shashi Tharoor’s polemic against the crimes and sins of the British in his recently published Inglorious Empire.
Polemical it may be, but it shines a light on Britain and its not-so-distant past that contributes to British self-identity as it gets re-shaped for a post-Brexit world.
In other words, offering a critique of Trump and the US must come with a huge accompanying dose of humility and realism about our own history. And that realism should compel us to demand better from our present in order to ameliorate what might lie in the future.
So, going back to questions of language and our descriptions of truth, Brexit Secretary David Davis MP has described the British approach to negotiating a customs relationship with the European Union as one of “constructive ambiguity”.
Which means what? Constructive from whose perspective? Constructive in terms of building what – clear understanding? Ambiguity in terms of keeping options open? Or an inability or unwillingness to commit?
These are questions, not statements. The point is that language is used in such a way as to imply cleverness when, in reality, it might suggest ignorance or incompetence. (It
might be useful just once if the British could entertain the imaginative exercise of looking through EU eyes at ourselves, and listening through ears shaped by other languages to the language we use of them and ourselves. I won’t hold my breath).
The common factor in all this is the popular acceptance of a corrupt public and political discourse.
The fact that alternative power-mongers (Hillary Clinton is the one being most commonly cited at present) might be equally or more corrupt does nothing to address our responsibility for demanding truthfulness, honesty and realism from those who actually have accountable power.
Valuing democracy means more than ticking a box every few years.
The Right Reverend Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds, covering West Yorkshire and the Dales.