On cant

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Today a look at cant – when high ideals are evoked and language used merely to give the impression some grand plan is unfolding when, in truth, there exists a substantial gulf between what is said and what is actually done.

On cant

By: Gareth van Onselen

18 July 2012

Political discourse lends itself to cant; that is, to the enthusiastic promotion of high ideals through platitude and piety. Not all political rhetoric is cant but it features more prominently that it should.

Principles, values and ideals are, of course, all-important to any democratic order. Without them, one cannot properly develop a coherent, ethical programme of action; nor would any leader be able to explain a vision in a charismatic manner, that they might inspire others to follow. Likewise, they help contextualize the smaller, seemingly unrelated events that progress necessitates – giving meaning to what might appear meaningless. But, when a gap exists between word and deed, the loftier political talk is, the more hollow it rings.

Should this happen, talk that might otherwise have been inspiring comes to have the opposite affect. It appears hypocritical; for there is no evidence that any high ideal has actually been realised and every reference to one, transformed into little more than a burning reminder of the gulf between a vision and the action necessary to fulfill it, but not yet forthcoming.

There does, however, exist a period of time before the public mind accepts fully that those high ideals promised are never going to be made real, during which it is still possible to hide behind cant – its pious language offering safe refuge, away from any full interrogation of the facts. It is hope that allows such hypocrites to avoid proper scrutiny in this way – people are still willing to believe the fracture between word and deed can be welded closed.

Hope truly is the cruelest emotion.

What they fail to realise is that it was always cant, even when the gap was closed. Whether or not their platitudes were ever accompanied by practical action is, for them, neither here nor there. As if necessary to convince themselves alone of their good intentions, great words and grand gestures is how they measure their own worth.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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