Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Emotion and Rhetoric

Community opposition to the Carlton River Hazardous Waste Dump must be causing some concern. The Murdoch monopoly owned Hobart Mercury felt the need recently to run multiple articles criticizing the emotional, uneducated,  local hinderers of economic growth. These articles can be seen here: Community raises own voice and When the mob hijacks debate

I had to struggle to contain my laughter at these articles. Much emotion and rhetoric, while criticising and insulting the local community for doing the same. The journalists felt free to conflate various issues in an attempt to create community hostility. The big three Tees. Towers, Trawlers, and Toxic dumps. (Oh how the tabloids love alliteration.)

To join the very real concerns over the Able Tasman with the concerns of a small group in Glenorchy who do not want a mobile tower in their area is a wrong headed equation which attempts to raise the NIMBY flag, making a mockery of the issues.

The prime mover of this campaign in the Souther Beaches region was the lack of consultation and engagement in the early stages of project planning. Community consultation is very important. This can not be overstated. Our dreams of democracy are based on this very idea. The idea of Athenian democracy that we flatter ourselves we follow was based on community input and discussion. The Local Government Association of Tasmania 'recognises that community engagement is vital to the democratic process...' In the Carlton River Dump site project we have had closed doors investigation, followed by a consultation phase which seemed to have included the bare minimum the law allows. Without consultation at the earliest stage of any project the problem then becomes one of trust.

I can not talk about the mobile tower in Glenorchy as I not familiar with the issues involved. But I do take exception to the mocking tone of the author, telling the locals not to complain about poor service. Personally I would be happy to throw away all mobile phones. My phone is 5 years old and I spend no more than $20 a month on the phone. Too many people have been burnt by phone companies offering the sky and giving only large bills and poor service. Too many people have bought into the considered words of experts and find themselves with the shock of large bills, as well as entering the merry-go-round of constant updates and add-ons. But this is not the place for me to rant on about mobile phones. And most likely the topic for another conversation.

To compare the Trawler and the Carlton River Hazardous Waste Unit to mobile phones is, again, wrong headed. Nothing like this Trawler, nor this C Cell have been seen in Tasmania before. Indeed as reported in the Mercury "[The Carlton River Dump] is no run-of-the-mill development." And herein lies the question of trust. If community members, the citizens and electors are not consulted, except within the tight letter of the law, they lose trust in the councils and businesses involved, they lose trust in their betters, in the powers that be. Once trust is lost all the balming words that 'all will be well' are seen through the prism of distrust. In small communities like Copping, Dodges Ferry, Sorell, Dunalley, Forcett and others this distrust is not needed at all. In a way unknown to citizens of large cities like Sydney, in small rural communities we all know each other, and so the need for open and transparent process takes on even greater import.

When a new project is to be developed, one that has never been tried in the state, it is important for the councils to be even more proactive in consulting the community. Or trust is lost. When the project involves possible toxic chemicals the councils have a greater need to engage the community at an earlier stage. This did not happen, consultation was obviously flawed or there would be no need for a second round of community engagement. So flawed in fact, as was reported in the Mercury, that the local member Rebbeca White said she had no knowledge the dump was to go ahead. If the council will not talk to elected members you can understand the communities concerns. Such secrecy does not lead to positive outcomes. Such secrecy leads the community to doubt all the reports issued and announcements made. So again we see that this process has lead to a loss of trust. How can there be trust when one side has information and the other side is told, like Bananas in Pyjamas or The Doctor, to simply trust.

But sadly too many of us have lived too long to take much on trust anymore. We have seen many examples of private companies, local councils, and nation states fail over and over again their fellow citizens. With these failures the citizens are the ones who have to pay the price. It is not like a Senator wakes up on one fine morning and says, 'I know I will ban companies from putting poison into baby food.' No, these laws have to be made because companies have seen fit to put poison into baby food, and it is up to the people to force government to legislate on our behalf. Same with toxic dumps and super trawlers, we are told that all will be well, but we all know from painful experience that careful oversight is required. Unless the local community does this oversight work, who can they turn to? In particular the recent Carlton River Dump has no detail as to what will happen in some thirty years and the dump is filled and 'capped.' Who will monitor the site then? Who is pay if the worst happens? After our recent experience with consultation how can we trust this dump to be safe for an unknown number of years?

I was particularly amused by the words emotion and rhetoric thrown around like cuss words, or school yard insults. For what is a newspaper if not a rhetoric machine? The opinion pages of a newspaper are as interested in shaping opinion, as they are reporting and reflecting opinion. In the same way that the entertainment and style pages seeks to shape our attitude to certain films and books and etc, so do the opinion pages seek to shape public opinion concerning the political issues of the day.

Let us look in detail at one phrase used by The Mercury to promote science and oppose emotion. The locals opposed to the Carlton River Dump are described as an 'angry shrieking crowd.' Is this not an appeal to emotion? Is this not a rhetorical device? It is always nice to get a more or less exact definition of words used, in this instance the word verb (or more accurately and more pedantically participle) shrieking means, 'a shrill, often frantic cry', 'to utter high-pitched sounds or words', and finally 'a piercing sound or words, as an expression of terror, pain, or excitement.' The constant reference to high-pitched may tell us something about the use of this word. It is accepted that deep voices gain more authority than the high-pitched sounds of, dare I say, women and children. Is not Julia GIllard referred to as shrill? A quick goolge search gave me quotes such as 'Julia Gillard's shrill attack on the coalition', 'Julia Gillard [is] becoming more and more shrill', and one last one describing her as 'shrill and aggressive.' And this lovely bit of rhetoric from The Australian 'The invective from Julia Gillard is really disgraceful. Her smart-alecky shrieking across the benches really lowers the standard...' Doing the same with Leigh Sales rather than the PM we find, 'increasingly shrill, 'excruciatingly shrill' (try saying that three times fast after a few tequila slammers).

If the word shrill means high-pitched cry of terror or excitement, is not the Mercury using this word to try to feminise or even to make the opponents of the Carlton River Toxic Dump seem infantile? Adding some science to the argument, according to Dr Paul Carding, speech pathologist at Freeman Hospital in Newcastle on Tyne, a deep voice is seen as 'more authoritative and sophisticated.' So with all this information we can confidently answer the question in the affirmative. Shriek, shrill and such words are used to make the citizens seem like children, or even worse (in our society) as women. Even Maggie Thatcher felt the need to take spin lessons to learn how to deepen her voice.

Just as an aside some of words that are antonyms of authoritative include such words as humble, meek, docile, compliant, passive, submissive, yielding. So the ones without deep voices are the docile ones. Maybe high pitched voices should not be allowed to speak at public meetings?

To more objective, professional and anti-rhetorical could not the meetings be described as angry, vocal concerned citizens. Surely the Mercury could not be saying that the people have no right to challenge the experts? On many occasions the Murdoch press is happy to spring to the defense of free speech in opposing any changes or inquiries into the newspaper business. Do they not want to spread this love of freedom and democracy to the general public. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide if the newspapers are playing cynical games or not.

Many times we hear the need to go back to an older type of education for our children. We hear how trendy post modern teachings in schools have destroyed our children and the future of the nation. Why then this hatred of rhetoric? Surely the teaching of Rhetoric is central to any classical education. Rhetoric, Grammar, Dialectics, add some Mathematics and Rugby and we have the foundation for a good old fashioned English education, the type of which won the battle of Waterloo. We have to ask ourselves, what does the Mercury want? How do they propose to get there? Or is the Mercury, much more than the uneducated hillbillies down Iron Creek way, actually the source of the knee jerk opposition and division they often descry in our community. 

What is rhetoric? From my Liddle & Scott Greek dictionary Rhetoric comes from an old Greek word which means 'the art of speech', and some one who engages with Rhetoric is 'One who is skilled in speaking.' This from the word Rhetor, a public speaker, but also a judge, or an advocate. This raises the idea, hidden in the slogan 'if you don't like Murdoch paper, just don't read it'; the idea that newspapers are a commodity, but indeed a special kind of commodity. A commodity that is at the same time a rhetoric machine, a machine which seeks to use words to try to persuade. Surely the free speech lovers of the Murdoch press are not saying that only they can use Rhetoric in a positive sense, and any dissenting view uses Rhetoric in the negative sense of the word.

One of the many tricks and turns of Rhetoric is to attack the words of their opponents. In this case the 'newly-minted' (a phrase worth thinking about) Greens senator Whish-Wilson is mocked for saying "People aren't interested about hearing about the science or economics of this, they simply don't want the vessel and can't see what good could come of it." Is there any context to this quote? Is the senator speaking in a similar way to the students of apartheid era South Africa, when they would sing, 'We don't need your education?' Could we not understand the Senator to be saying something like we do not want your biased science, we reject the economics which only support the few as opposed to the many? Some people can look at economics and come away thinking that a wage of two dollars a day would be good business sense. However there is much more to be taken into account. The author then goes on the suggest that opponents to the Carbon Price scheme use this seemingly anti-science stance to attack the Greens Party. Is it the place of the Mercury to use their bully pulpit to tell the enemies of the Greens how to fight their battles?

The Murdoch press with their vast power are of course a key element of the 'system' and so will use their power to suppress opposing view points. But as has been seen by the recent events the power of the people, democracy in it's literal meaning, can turn away super trawlers, can stop mobile phone towers, and democracy, cooked up with the right mixture of science, rhetoric and emotion will be able to stop the Carlton River Toxic Waste Dump.

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