I have a friend – let’s call him Paul (because that’s his name) – who likes to use a system called Whatsapp to communicate with me and other friends. It’s an excellent system, in fact. It allows you to send messages, pictures, sound clips and videos in real time to one or more of your contacts. It lets us chat, basically.
The way Paul uses the system is quite different to other people I know. He is wedded to the use of text (or txt) language. Everything he writes is abbreviated. This used to make sense when you were being charged for individual text messages, but Whatsapp is ostensibly free. There are no limits on the number of characters you can use in each message. Bluntly, you don’t need to use the abbreviations. However, Paul insists. In recent days, communication between certain friends and Paul has broken down because all we talk about is the way Paul writes, rather than what he’s saying. Most of the conversation comprises wild guesses at what his latest abbreviation is supposed to mean.
It’s a pretty trivial example, but it got me thinking about how often this ends up being true in other situations. Very often, the medium is the message, as much as the content. So, in recent debates about immigration, there’s at least as much importance placed on the way the topic is described as there is on any policies that may be advanced. In fact, these policies are usually put forward to “deal” with immigration. Now, it’s rare that you “deal” with something that isn’t already perceived to be a problem. You tend not to “deal” with being given a great birthday present, or being told that you are fit and healthy.
So when politicians and said to be “tackling” immigration, they are usually also “talking tough”. I am quite sure that communications experts have advised them that what they say is basically irrelevant, as long as the language fits the narrative of a problem that must be addressed. Much of what David Cameron said this week on immigration was revealed to be factually dubious, practically irrelevant or hopelessly vague. However, the news outlets all picked up on the speech as a new approach to “dealing” with immigration. It doesn’t really matter whether it is or it isn’t. It doesn’t even matter if there is much of a problem there in the first place. What matters is that the language is king. To be on the right side of the argument (as a conservative press sees it), you just need to sound tough.
While we’ve been wasting time trying to understand what Paul’s been on about this week, without getting close to any meaning, politicians have also focused on language. Only they’ve been very deliberate. They understand that when language is emotive, the underlying reasoning is secondary. In a different way, they’re doing what Paul’s inadvertently done – used language to blind us to the message. Though I doubt very much anyone cares what Paul was saying (we think he was planning to order a curry), a lot of people care about what the Prime Minister says. But more importantly, they care about how he says it.