by Geoff Olson
One of my late father’s favourite expressions was “never lose an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” I’ve tried to source the quote online, only to learn it’s as “old as the Egyptian Stonecutters’s Union,” as one wag put it.
In the Fourth century AD, The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu prefaced his book Tao Te Ching with the caution, “The Tao that can be explained is not the true Tao.” He then spent the rest of the work trying to explain it. Not to be outdone, in the same era Gautama Buddha supposedly declared, “what I have to teach cannot be taught,” yet continued to instruct followers for 45 years.
Centuries later, the Austrian analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein ended his influential 1921 treatise, The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, with the memorable proposition, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” In other words, there are subjective experiences beyond our ability to effectively communicate. Of course, Wittgenstein only came to this conclusion after 55 pages of deep dithering.
As Guardian contributor Oliver Burkeman recently observed, “Human interaction is a matter of yelling between mountaintops, through driving rain, in different languages, with socks over our heads.”
Yet these Babels of babble shouldn’t stop us from trying to communicate effectively. The problem is when we mistake quantity for quality in our personal and public conversations.
Consider the unlikely ascent of reality TV fixture Donald Trump as Republican presidential candidate. US voters tired of politicians reciting talking points like overpaid parrots have been both entertained and appalled by a man working without a script on a xenophobic high-wire. If he contradicted himself, that’s because the Combover King contained multitudes of supporters, from the Harvard-educated quant on Wall Street to the life coach/app developer in Orange County to the squirrel-frying coal miner’s wife in West Virginia.
In the yammermouth pandemic, Sarah Palin was the first blemish on the body politic. Donald Trump represents the full-on, biohazard level 4 outbreak.
It never mattered what nonsense, non-sequitur, or racist sentiment Trump mouthed; while other politicians spoke in banalities for fear of alienating some part of their voting demographic, the wildly inconsistent Trump simply opened up an id-to-tongue expressway. Plenty of US voters appreciate that; he seems to voice their rage at a system has failed to deliver for decades to all but the very rich.
In the most interesting Mobius Strip maneuver of all, a rich man with a jaw-dropping succession of failed business ventures has positioned himself as an enemy of the establishment, even though he’s a spawn of that very system. It’s just that Drumpf hails from hypercapitalism’s rentier and mass entertainment divisions rather than the oil sector, or official Washington.
Our motormouth premier is a somewhat similar breed of politician, having made the transition from right-wing politics to talk radio and back into politics. (The problem with Clark, one retired high-level politician told me a few years ago, is that she has difficulty restraining herself verbally – although he put it a bit more colourfully than that.)
What used to be fatal flaw for a public figure – talking spontaneously or too much – is a personal boon in an era of information overload. If you’re caught lying or claiming something outrageous, just drop another whopper into the gears of mass media. While the pundits are still examining the first statement like the spoor of some endangered animal, squeeze out another one.
(Words still have real-world consequences. Eton schoolmates Boris Johnson and David Cameron bloviated from opposite sides of the EU membership referendum. But the ex-mayor of London and the expiry-dated British Prime Minister are both likely horrified at the wholly unanticipated result.)
Politicians have long known that appeals to emotion, rather than reason, are the way to reach the electorate. That’s why those who hail from mass media – talk radio, film, and the darker corners of reality television – have become electable material from Ronald Reagan on. Entertainers arrive consumer-tested into the electoral market, some with their tongues waving like auto mall inflatable Skydancers.
It’s all par for the course for a zeitgeist that just can’t shut up. I will await Kanye West’s 2020 presidential run with both dread and a bucket of popcorn.
The Vancouver Courier, June 30