Intellectual Vacuity Test

Friday 22 May 2015

The bizarre use of language in politics continues to boggle my mind. I recall an article written by Simon Hoggart, long-time parliamentary sketch writer for The Guardian, in which he revealed his professional technique for sieving out real statements from unreal ones. You might call it the Intellectual Vacuity Test, or more simply, the Bullshit Detector – and it worked like this. You take some pompous declaration by some orating politician, and you simply reverse it: imagine if it would be possible to say the opposite and still retain credibility.

For instance, a politician might state solemnly “This Government is firmly in favour of promoting employment”. A reverse version might be “This Government is wholly indifferent to promoting employment”. Now, that might in fact be true – but can you imagine any sane politician, with any desire to maintain his career, actually saying that? If not, then the original statement was simply an empty ritual which added nothing to anyone’s true understanding.

I have been putting the Hoggart IV Test to good use recently. It is a mega-season of local elections in Spain right now, which means that my home town of Sitges is festooned with election posters. Now, sadly, the slogans are all in Spanish or Catalan, so you’ll just have to trust my translations ... but the semantic sense (or non-sense) of the slogans is surely intercultural. Like this ...

So we apply the IV Test, and we get the slogan '0% Sitges'. Not exactly promising as a vote winner... but hang on, what does this 100% actually mean? Is this guy distinguishing himself from some wimp who is merely 83.2% Sitges? And how, come to think of it, does one determine the sitgesosity of someone or something? And anyway, sitgesosity of what? The candidate's genetic background? The party's attention to local issues is, I suppose, what is vaguely being alluded to ... but applying the IV Test again, who is going to say 'Just 54% of my policies have anything to do with Sitges' ?

Here's another: 'We act today thinking of tomorrow'. The IV Test recommends: 'We act today thinking of last Wednesday' or 'We act today thinking of some time in 1996'. I mean, who doesn't make plans thinking of the future?

And while we're on the subject of forward thinking: 'Your daily life is our investment'. An imaginative application of the Hoggart Principle might suggest: 'Your daily life is our budget cut' ... or 'Your daily life is a waste of public money', but the latter is a little wordy, isn't it?

What about: 'This is the moment for individual people. It is your moment.' (tricky one to translate, that, but you get the gist). Well, politics always comes down to individual people, doesn't it, whether we're thinking about political decisions or political consequences? I suggested 'This is the moment for the braindead. It is your moment', but my wife favours 'This is the moment for pencil-sharpeners' as being more intriguing and less insulting, less likely to alienate voters. And, let's face it, bound to go down big with pencil-sharpeners.

The most potentially alarming is this proposition from a candidate aiming to be alcalde: 'The street will be my office; the town hall your home'. Now, hang on - is this guy's campaign based on some kind of game of musical chairs, or house-swopping? Does this translate as 'You won't be able to get away from me' ?

Finally, there's the classic Great New Tomorrow line: 'New Sitges, New Country' ... and yes, this is from a party whole-heartedly in favour of Catalan independence. So, the message is to vote for me and you get not only a new town, but a bonus new country as well. Applying the IV Test might produce 'Same Old Sitges, Same Old Country' - but that's been the basis for so many conservative politicians' campaigns, for ever.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not setting out just to be mean about local politicians here in Sitges. The kind of vapid feel-good slogans I've reported above can, I believe, be found in practically any electoral campaign anywhere. But I do have this longing for political debate that has a bit of meat to it - that doesn't just depend on vague idealisms soaked in cuddly emotions.

23 Aug 2015


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