Zuma’s speech-making: Grasping in the dark

by The Editor

FEATURE: President Jacob Zuma’s speech-making has, for some time now, been the source of much criticism. Not only is it dull and dreary but the content – particularly when it comes to matters of state – is so generic and vague as to render it almost meaningless. In a nutshell, he says nothing and he says it in painstaking fashion. I wrote this article in response to the President’s 2010 State of the Nation address, one of many lowpoints. In it I argue this kind of blandness can only be excused as bad speech-making up to a point – if a public representative is deliberately vague, concealing the facts, that is dishonest and the attitude of a dissembler.

Zuma’s speech-making: Grasping in the dark

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 September 2012

“But if a man cannot obtain to that judgment, then it is left to him generally to be close, and a dissembler. For where a man cannot choose, or vary in particulars, there it is good to take the safest, and wariest way, in general; like the going softly, by one that cannot well see.” [Francis Bacon; Of Simulation and Dissimulation]

Like a blind man feeling his way in the dark, says Bacon, is the man who cannot distinguish those moments which necessitate the facts be laid out to bear, from those which require they be held close, unarticulated, even unidentified. For if one lacks the skill to distinguish between those two moments, one’s language too is inevitably indistinguishable, vague and general; because purpose relies on particulars just as intent relies on action, without them, each is reduced merely to rhetoric, nothing more than the tentative outstretched hand of a man who cannot see one step in front of him.

Every year the President is required to put before the country the details, the particulars, the evidence that best describes the state of the nation and his argument for its future. It is an occasion which necessitates the facts be laid out to bear, not by choice but as a duty to those to whom such an account is addressed. And yet, in recent times, it is a rare thing for this foundational speech to be defined by any real attempt to place before the people, with accuracy and veracity, the true nature of things. For to articulate the extent of the decay, even once due regard has been paid to progress, would be to map a frightful picture; and so, faced with Bacon’s choice, the safest and the wariest way is almost always chosen, and the vague and the general becomes the status quo.

There is, at the heart of this attitude, a speech; a simple text written for this purpose. And so it is worth dedicating, I believe, some small attention to writing and to try, at least in general terms, to understand what differentiates the dull and lifeless nature of formless generality, from the magnetic pull of a powerfully structured argument. Because the rules that should define a good argument are foreign to much of our public debate, a symptom of the choice described above; it is driven primarily by emotion and raw desire, rather than by any considered application of the facts, and this is to our detriment, for the effect is insidious and the consequences profound. If we are to counter it, then, it is important that we recognise this habit for what it is.

Emotion has a part to play in any piece of writing, it is rhetoric’s lifeblood, giving it colour and imagination; but unchecked it becomes superficial, unreasonable, incoherent. And here evidence and logic have a role to play, they are the parameters that should guide one’s emotional drive through an argument, correcting its course when it strays and bolstering its strength when it is legitimate.

And, if emotion is the driving force behind an argument and logic and evidence its map book, then language is its infrastructure: the hard material with which one’s intent is built. All four of these components are critical and each one draws its strength from the other. An original argument is borne of a particular disposition and its power derived from one’s intellectual prowess but its nature is dependent on words and their relationship to one another.

Public debate in South Africa lacks these parameters – emotion runs free, originality has been usurped by political correctness and language butchered by a systematic lowering of standards. As a result, you can be sure that many arguments are not arguments at all. At the one end of the scale they are best described as ‘tirades’, as ‘rants’, as ‘invective’; at the other, a bland summation, an ‘overview’ or simply empty ‘rhetoric’. But not arguments. We do not deal in arguments.

Words too have lost their meaning or, at least, their meaning has been stripped away from them. Clichés and platitudes have become common cause, for they offer the double benefit of self-righteous indignation, as well as hazy meaning, a cozy refuge for moralisers. And it is not just the quality of language that suffers but the quantity. By which I mean the number of words in circulation has reduced, down to a core set of ideas or phrases, even words, which come to dominate debate, limiting the parameters of public thought, ostracizing originality and forcing every ambiguity to choose a side.

Very often the problem is so acute it is borne of blissful ignorance, as opposed to ill-intent. It is the simple consequence of not knowing any better. Not knowing the rules, of logic and of language. They have been forgotten by a generation forged in emotional rhetoric; perhaps the result of several decades in which there was no debate, there was only right and wrong, and you were either right, or you were either wrong. And your emotional intensity, as opposed to your intellectual rigor, determined your impact, if words played any role at all.

Today that spirit lives on; but it is a spirit that has forgotten its body died a long time ago. It does not recognise that there are legitimate areas of contestation, shades of grey, and that the best path of action is not necessarily a consequence of one’s emotional pull in a particular direction, rather the result of considered thought, of discussion and debate, of reason and compromise. That spirit is kept alive today – its past is regularly and deliberately evoked – a time when there was no choice, only desire. And so it thinks it died just yesterday, and thus it continues to infect public thought, fuelling intolerance and hollowing out meaning.

Certainly it has reduced analysis to nothing more than a veneer, the broad brushstrokes that thinly cover over insight and complexity and, at a distance, comprise any picture or fit any frame; a far safer and less onerous option than the detailed and thoughtful workmanship that defines a masterpiece. And effort? Effort has been outlawed. The reflection and careful consideration that subtlety and suggestion require? Too much to induce, let alone create.

Bacon suggests the man who knowingly makes that choice – to be vague instead of frank – is dishonest; he calls him a dissembler. And here it is necessary to address one’s purpose in undertaking any debate or presenting any argument. It is to convince: to present a case that so effectively marries logic and language with emotion and evidence as to win others over to your cause. But there is another means to this end, and it is the calling card of the dissembler: to subvert those three more rational requirements – logic, language and evidence – to the irrational pull of raw emotion. Masked behind generality and with a superior air of superficiality it is all persuasion and intent, but never convincing. And always with some implicit threat, warning against any revealing of what it really is. That is undoubtedly dishonest, as it is an admission of failure, a realisation that the facts, the particulars, provide little support for one’s purpose.

For all this, there is one consideration even those dissemblers take for granted: a passive audience, uncritical and unthinking. That role too is a choice. The requirements necessary for any one person to be convinced by an argument are a reflection of their own expectations, and where we set the bar says as much about ourselves as it does about our willingness to allow public debate to dilute reality down to some vaguely pleasing platitude. That is a choice we face everyday, but one we do not often make. As such, I believe we are complicit. Only by making that choice can we break the viscous circle we find ourselves caught in.

This week we watched a man, a President, grasping in the dark; carefully feeling his way, his every word as empty as it was safe, lest he offend or stub his toe on some hard truth. He put no argument before the people. He offered no vision, no analysis. His language was hollow, meaningless. He spoke in platitudes and clichés. There were no particulars as he limped down the safest path, the wariest way. And that choice was deliberate. For these reasons I say he is a dissembler.

And yet that speech was just a moment, one among many. The test we face does not lie just in recognising such moments for what they are but in arresting the attitude that fuels their design. It is a manner borne of contempt, for the truth and for those to whom any argument is addressed. And it is only our response, a decision to choose the harder path, which can set our public discourse on a firmer footing.

This article was first published on 17 February 2010.

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.