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I’m glad you asked me that . . .

Oct. 20, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

As the election cycle grinds toward its conclusion, even the most enthusiastic potential voters are beginning to tire of the constant barrage of political rhetoric with which we have been assaulted for the past two years.

What is most striking is not the fact that politicians talk as much as they do (impressive though that may be). What is most amazing is that politicians can talk that much without saying anything.

For most of us, the object of speech is communication. When political candidates open their tireless yappers, the goal is to impede communication.

Politicians have developed creative ways to use language as a means to discourage the exchange of useful information.

The first technique involves the use of “political speak,” a variation on what Orwell called “Newspeak.”

Politicians have a vocabulary all their own that is fraught with words that either have no meaning, or are so vague as to leave the listener scratching his coconut and wondering what just blew by him.

Sometimes they do this by taking ordinary words and using them in creative new ways.

If, for example, a politician says something is “imminent,” we can probably assume that there is no chance it will happen in our lifetime.

If he says he is willing to “look at something,” or “is not going to take any options off of the table,” what he really means is that he has no intention of adopting a policy that goes against his own agenda, but he doesn’t want to have to defend his reasons for not doing it. Saying he is willing to “look at it” doesn’t commit him to any real action, it is just a way to appease his critics.

Another example of politicians’ unusual language skills involves the way they handle difficult questions.

If someone asks a politician a difficult question that he does not want to answer – which, of course, applies to every difficult question – he may respond by complimenting the questioner.

He might say, “That is an excellent question, and I’m glad you asked me that.”

What he really means is “I was hoping that no one would think to bring that up.”

He might continue his response, saying, “But first let me just say this . . . .”

A careful listener, upon hearing these words, will immediately recognize that this is code, and he is about to hear a lengthy discourse that has nothing whatsoever to do with the question that was asked.

A common variation of this technique is the “change the question” ruse.

In order to avoid the appearance that they are dodging questions (which of course they are), politicians using this technique will revise the question that was asked to make it a question that fits their own agenda, and then answer that question.

Listeners, who are probably already confused, may mistakenly think the candidate just answered the question. What they may not notice is that the question he answered was not the one that was asked.

Politicians are a bit like wild animals. When cornered, they may attack a person who asks difficult questions and try to discredit him, thereby deflecting attention from an unpalatable subject and giving the candidate an opportunity to steer the focus back to something he wants to talk about.

It has not always been this way.

Throughout history, some of our greatest orators and most articulate communicators have been politicians. Some of them even wrote their own material instead of having a team of speech writers do it for them.

To be fair, the demise of communication in the election process may not be entirely the fault of the politicians.

The ever-decreasing attention span of Americans is one factor.

Too many people demand the Readers’ Digest or Cliff’sNotes version, rather than troubling themselves to actually read anything of substance.

Intense pressure from the media, and the illusion that we need breaking news 24 hours per day, seven days per week, is another factor.

Instead of requiring people to present important information in a logical and thoughtful way, we force people, including politicians, to compress everything into talking points and 10-second sound bites.

These may be easier to remember, but they do not make it easier to understand the larger issues, or the specifics of a proposal.

After listening to months of campaign propaganda and political debates, we can conclude that one thing is clear. We may have more ways to communicate today, but this has not necessarily resulted in better communication.

Voters beware. There are more smoke and mirrors in the political arena than Houdini and those of his ilk ever dreamed of, and things are not always as they appear – or sound.