Recent political performances require a new verb. Imagine, if you will, a talk given to an audience where the speaker is discussing an object sitting between him and the audience. The object is clearly black but the speaker refers to it throughout his talk as white. He does this without irony giving no hint that he actually know it to be black. And yet, the blackness of the object is so obvious, so manifest, so unquestionable that the audience begins to frown, wondering at what clever semiotic point is being made. But then the talk concludes without such a point being made explicit. Bewilderment ensues – what has just happened? Or more pertinently, what was the point of what just happened?
I’m inspired to write this by various government descriptions of what was happening last week but in particular by Brendan Smith’s performance on “Saturday View” (RTE Radio 1) and that of Brian Lenihan on “This Week” (RTE 1 Sunday). The surface content of what they were saying is irrelevant: suffice to say that when they spoke they lied.
Normally I’d use another description (“spinning”, “putting a gloss on things” etc.) but now the dishonesty is so glaring, it’s just a lie.
…”lying” doesn’t capture the nuances of what’s going on at present. Going back to the example above, imagine everyone present at the end the talk objected that the object was, in fact, white. However, confronted with this, the speaker merely stifles a chortle and addresses some other element of the object, while continuing – in passing – to refer to the “black” object. It would become clear to the audience that the talker exhibited a particular attitude towards truth, perhaps one which he was tacitly inviting his audience to indulge in with him.
When Orwell wrote on political language he criticised the fact that it had to “consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” But the lies we’re hearing from government ministers now are often quite specific: e.g. Dermot Ahern’s suggestion on “The Week in Politics” that it was a “fiction” to suggest that the Government was going to apply for funding. Yesterday on “This Week” Richard Crowley asked Brian Lenihan how much money we were looking for. Lenihan replied that we were currently borrowing €19bn more than we were earning as a nation, leaving it to Crowley to do the maths. However, when Crowley, having done his sums, came back with “So we’re talking about €70-80bn?”, Lenihan vehemently responded “No, no, nothing like that.”
This morning it emerges that we’re actually seeking more than €80bn. In other words, for Lenihan yesterday, it’s didn’t matter whether what he was saying was true or false. What did matter, based on the fact that he appeared in RTE at all, was that he was seen to be seen.
In 1984 Orwell described Newspeak as “To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them”. But in “1984″ the suggestion is that, even if Winston Smith has doubts about the veracity of government statements, most people accept them. In Ireland these so-called “genuine lies” are being trotted out in a public sphere where literally no-one believes them. Not only do people know they’re being lied to but Lenihan et al, must know that the public knows they’re being lied to.
In other words, the “Big Lie” is being deployed not because it might actually convince some people of its veracity but because the entire truth/fiction continuum is now understood as being entirely distinct from/irrelevant to Irish politics. Arguably this disjuncture occurred a long time ago – think Frank Dunlop, Charlie Haughey, Liam Lawlor, Bertie Ahern et al. But – and this is the one kernal of hope – current events have unambiguously demonstrated to all citizens the absoluteness of the separation and the consequences of not merely tolerating it, but of actively indulging it, election after election.
This may not lead to political change but at least it clarifies a question that all citizens need to address: do we think politics and truth should be re-united?
Dr. Roderick Flynn is a lecturer at the School of Communications, DCU