Read the following sentence carefully:
Isn’t it time to abandon independence and concentrate much poorer and undermine our ability to improve society in the ways that the of Scotland people really want?
This was the final sentence in a letter which appeared on The Herald’s letter page on February 4th. It was written by a Labour Councillor and it concerned a report from the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance, stating that Scottish Independence would leave Scots £2,800 a year worse off.
Naturally I wrote to The Herald.
“Clearly, somewhere along the line between Councillor Gallagher’s pen and the printing press, Messrs Cut & Paste have fallen out…”
I wasn’t published. That’s okay. Sometimes I get published, sometimes not, and when I write, I cannot second-guess the outcome. It no longer bothers me. I am beyond harm. But I’m still intrigued to know what happened. Did Councillor Gallagher really write that? If not, where, and how, did the words gets jumbled? Did he fail to run a spell check?
On the other hand, maybe the Councillor was being unusually candid. Some people believe that the reason why Scottish Labour has been almost obliterated as a political force is that they became complacent in the stability of their once dominant hegemony and were content to keep their constituency in a state of docile subservience. Sir Sean Connery once said, “Labour is fossilised.” (Actually, he said, “Labour ish foshilijed.”) Like it or not, the Councillor was urging the Scots to embrace small-mindedness, poverty of ambition, and fear, in the way a waif or street urchin might cling to a decrepit rag doll for comfort.
On February 5th, when I was checking to see that I was not going to appear in print, I did notice there were a couple of letters written in response to Councillor Gallagher. The contentious issue was whether or not the LSE report was valid. Nobody mentioned his remarkable sentence. Nor did The Herald see fit to offer an explanation as to how this bizarre utterance had come about. What does this tell us? Presumably it tells us that nobody noticed, or nobody cared, or both.
This all seems to me to be symptomatic of some worrying trends in modern communication. Messages are transmitted, and received, in broad brush strokes. There is no attention to detail. We are content to get the broad drift, to hear “where people are coming from”. In politics, once we have identified the camp to which a correspondent belongs, we stop listening, either because we know we are in agreement, or we are in disagreement. The possibility of a change of mind is hardly considered. Lip service is paid to “nuance” in argument, but appreciation of nuance requires attention to detail, and that takes effort, in both the exposition and the apprehension of a case, political or otherwise. Assertion is not enough; it must be backed up by argument.
But questions and answers in contemporary communication are off-the-peg and not bespoke. You encounter this phenomenon if you get in touch with a business enterprise or corporation with a specific query. You are likely to be in communication with an automaton, and if the question you ask, and its answer, is not pre-packaged as a “FAQ”, your question will be ignored. We are supposed to be “connected” as never before; all these lines of communication – from email to texting to SMS to WhatsApp to Snapchat and a million other platforms I’ve never heard of. Such trafficking of information. Yet do these services facilitate a meeting of minds? Sometimes I feel like a pilot talking to the control tower:
“Golf Echo Charlie Kilo Oscar inbound request re-join instructions.”
“Oh Hi James, gorgeous day going forward. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Please touch base any time. Best!”
People talk in clichés. Lord Falconer described the pandemic as “the gift that keeps on giving” for the legal profession. Did he mean Covid was a subject of professional interest, or a cash cow? Or did he just thoughtlessly pull a cliché off the shelf? Maybe he heard Craig Revel Horwood use it. But fancy describing a virus that has by now killed 112,000 people in the UK as a “gift”. (It reminded me of a remark passed by one Jo Moore, on 11/9/01: “A good day to bury bad news.”) People seem to be content to speak in soundbites virtually devoid of meaning. Messages on Twitter can be particularly puerile. Politicians really ought to shut down their Twitter accounts. Their posts can be full of cant and mawkish sentimentality. “Truly sorry to hear of the passing of X. So sad.”
Talking in cliché is a consequence of restricting yourself solely to dialogue with those of like mind. If you only converse with those in your own tribe, you don’t need to think of something new to say, because you have no desire to have somebody else see the world in a different light. You abandon the effort to “reach across the aisle”, and all you ever hear is the reverberation within your own echo chamber. Then somebody, like Councillor Gallagher, says something quite extraordinary, and nobody notices.