Our recent past
The last two years have been communication shockers. Debate on political and social matters have become shouting matches. Reason has by and large been trashed by the shouty people and replaced with unsubstantiated assertions, enthymemes, and mendacity.
This is a pretty black picture – but whether one looks West or East or across many European countries (most notably the UK) – the pursuit of truth and considered argument has been put under intense pressure, and often attacked as being a conspiracy of fear. This is a tactic used for example by Climate Change Deniers and by ardent Brexit campaigners to undermine the arguments and amassed evidence of their opponents.
Particularly discouraging is the use of false (or at least incomplete) argument. Caroline Lucas – of whom I am normally something of a fan – seemed to me to do this when tweeting about the state of the railways this week (the 3.1% fare increase). https://twitter.com/CarolineLucas on Jan 2nd.
It is clearly true that the last year has been, for some railways users, chaotic and unsatisfactory. It is also self-evident that a national transport infrastructure needs appropriate investment. It is also arguable – but probably right – that the structure of the industry is not optimal. And the failures in the franchising process points to a need for radical overhaul/replacement.
It is a fact that the industry was privatised in the mid 90s. A further fact that the infrastructure management component (Railtrack) was brought back into public ownership as Network Rail less than a decade later.
But I can see no root cause analysis which would point to the renationalisation of the railways as an obvious way forward. British Rail – the state owned predecessor – was no advertisement for quality, cost-effectiveness, reliability or investment. In fact, quite the opposite. “We’re getting there” was the most optimism it could muster. And would you put the future of the railways in the hands of a Department and Secretary of State who puts the entire blame for this year’s 3.1% fare increase on the unions?
The thing is, I do think there is benefit in having a considered assessment of different structural and investment options. But boiling everything down to a question of state or part-private ownership loses most or all of the flavour.
Why rhetoric has got a bad name
My subject and interest is communication and persuasion – what I have always thought of as the noble art of rhetoric. It upsets me that the term is most commonly used now as a put-down – “just rhetoric”. I am not surprised though, because many of our politicians do not even try to substantiate their arguments, relying instead upon disingenuity and appeals to prejudice – the “as we all know…….” statement. Assertions without a body of proof are indeed “just rhetoric” and that makes up most of what we hear from our politicians and read in our newspapers. In fact it is much worse than the bland “just rhetoric” label – it is actually sophistry. The passing of Paddy Ashdown, a politician who took pains to explain and exemplify his arguments, paints the appalling quality of the current political stock in high relief.
A wish for 2019
I thought a lot about my own company and what I do. I train and coach others to be more compelling, more influential and persuasive. But there was precious little in my marketing materials or course overviews which really focused on truthfulness and integrity. The conclusion dawned on me:
- Influence without sincerity is tyranny
- Persuasion without honesty is manipulation
So let us do what we can in 2019, each in our own way, to demonstrate sincere influence and honest persuasion.