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General Election 24
Politics
10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop. 

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.