YOU might not think that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, US president Donald Trump and Peter Casey, a former candidate for the Irish presidency, have that much in common, but they frequently attract the same compliment: They tell it like it is, says Terry Prone.
Now, there’s imprecision in this heartfelt encomium. Without sounding too much like former US president Bill Clinton, and in the interests of clarity, we need to ask who decides what ‘it’ is. Or, in novelist Martin Amis’s words, “telling what like what is?” Because when the Taoiseach tells it like it is, it sure isn’t the same thing as when Peter Casey tells it. So who is it that sees the great commonality between these three guys? And what is wrong with that person?
Anyone — like I do — who chairs a lot of seminars and conferences, looks forward, with a night-before-Christmas excitement, to the supporter of the tell-it-like-it-is person identifying themselves during the question-and-answer section. When they do, it’s like a small-scale Mexican wave goes through the rest of the audience.
The supporter is 90% likely to be male, although this may not reflect the number of females who agree with him. The supporter is also likely to be north of 50, although exceptions surface. The supporter will rarely pick on one of the speakers directly, but will mush all of them together in a generalised complaint, dressed up as a question, that nobody tells it like it is anymore, and “isn’t this because we’ve all become too politically correct?”
Most of the time, if they’re asked to be specific and to provide an example of a speaker on the platform not telling it like it is, they fail. Same thing happens if they’re asked to provide an example of a speaker who was “too politically correct”. Or to specify where the line is between “politically correct” and “too politically correct”. Instead, they tend to repeat what they said, often sticking onto it the caveat “maybe it’s just me, but...” They leave the gathering convinced they have struck a blow for freedom. And, sometimes, an inchoate point is lurking inside their quietly boiling incoherence.
That point goes like this: “I didn’t understand a bleedin’ word of what the speakers said up there, but I know I was being lectured. All liberals are for abortion and equal marriage and women working outside the home and getting so touchy you can’t even compliment them or you’ll find yourself up in front of the WRC. The liberals are all for Travellers, too, because none of them are from rural Ireland. They also like welfare cheats, the fourth or fifth generations who refuse to work and who get away with it because nobody ever makes them. The liberals don’t have to live around the corner from them.”
That’s what the guy attacking political correctness believes. He wants to tell Mary Poppins where to stick her umbrella. Not that the poor guy ever had a governess. Nor has he ever been heard, except on late-night radio programmes, not even when he makes a perfectly valid point, like the first in the diatribe above.
On current affairs TV or radio, he doesn’t understand politicians, because they’re talking in conceptual language, a public administration patois not spoken in his home or pub, nor by his tribe on the internet. He knows he’s being excluded, when he hears stuff like this: “The conceptual framework within which this policy will be implemented must be characterised by high levels of stakeholder engagement, transparency, and accountability. It must be preceded by an externally-monitored consultation process and succeeded by an implementation plan that achieves buy-in among all affected groups.”
Of course he feels excluded. He might as well be in a foreign country, for all the sense those words make to him. Whether it’s a minister communicating in conceptual terms and statistics, or an expert — a sociologist, actuary, or economist — using the same terms, they lose him and humiliate him.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t come out with concepts or statistics or posh language. He says things like: “You are rude. A terrible person.” To which the response from the man beaten down, as he sees it, by political correctness, is: “Gotcha.” The emerging truth being this: It’s easy to agree with what you understand, easy to agree with pictures, stories, and examples that lend themselves to repetition. And some of the most successful (albeit tragic) politicians in history grasped that reality and exemplified it in every public statement they made, including Abraham Lincoln.
“They say I tell a great many stories,” Lincoln told a friend. “I reckon I do, but I have learned from long experience that plain people, take them as they run, are more easily influenced through the medium of a broad and humorous illustration than any other way.”
It may not be popular to point it out, but Donald Trump does this all the time. You could hardly look for a broader and more humorous (in his terms) illustration than his attack on the journalist who tried to support CNN’s Jim Acosta in the notorious, recent White House press conference. Trump also talks in simple words.
You never have to stop and figure out the meaning of a Trump word. They’re the ones that live right beside the cash register, where you can’t miss them. The ones his chosen audience use every day.
WHAT’S amazing, given the constant, nay, invariable success of politicians who talk in non-conceptual English, is why the others don’t learn how to do it. The widespread assumption is that your pattern of public communication is set in stone by your thirties, so there’s no point in trying to fix it.
Except that it was when he was well-advanced in age — just before the Second World War — that Churchill decided to shuck the Victorian rhetoric he had always used and make a conscious move to modernise, using small words and vivid pictures.
The result was that, even though John Reith, head of the BBC, hated Churchill and kept him off the airwaves for a decade, Churchill still arrived, post-Reith, into studios that were strange to him, yet managed to talk directly to listeners as if he had spent years getting used to broadcasting.
Nor did he decide that any of his listeners could safely be disregarded. “It isn’t only the good boys who win the wars; it is the sneaks and the stinkers, as well,” he said.
The sneaks, the stinkers, and the haters of political correctness are part of every politician’s audience and are ignored or mocked at the politician’s peril.
He doesn’t understand politicians, because they’re using conceptual language