Opinion- 27 June 2007


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Harry Robinson Hails the Word, but is There a Farewell in the Offing?

The Rosetta Stone, 196 BCEWords, words, words, words. Nice words, scungy words. Polite words, insulting words. True words, deceptive words. Words on paper, words on screen. Sports callers' words. Preachers' words, shock jock words, words to threaten, words to trick. Words for science, words for poetry, words for law.

We are drowning in words. They are as common as dirt, not worth a damn.


Tell that to James Packer. He owes a million or so to the spin doctor who said: "No more gambling. Henceforth talk about gaming." Gambling had a whiff of risk and thievery. Gaming suggests good clean fun.

The Guinness family owed a stout fortune to the man who put up the slogan, "Guinness is good for you."

Even a stupid cliché can shape big things. "The great Aussie dream is a house on a quarter acre block." Some Aussies have wilder dreams but that cliché has sold millions of blocks and shaped great sprawling spreads of suburbs.

In longer sequences, well chosen words have power to move people. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech lives long after his death.

Words can be smokescreens. Listen to Brendan Nelson when he is asked a question which he can't or won't answer. Sibilantly he says, "Yess" and goes on saying what he wants to say and goes on and goes on until the audience has forgotten the question.

In the beginning was the word and the world will end not with a bang but an expletive.

Enough of this alpha beta indulgence. So what?

So the point is that the ed-sci community seems to have only the flimsiest notion of the power of words, of how to choose words for greatest effect, how to build words into sentences that flow and move the minds of listeners or readers. The evidence lies in public statements from scientists and academics who may give information or argument competently enough and so flat as to bore the audience and defeat the purpose. There are exceptions. Robin Williams finds them for his ABC Radio programs, The Science Show and Ockham's Razor. More evidence lies in the public and governmental neglect of higher education and scientific research. This is not only a failure of governments. It is also a failure of the ed-sci community to make a sufficiently powerful case. And the only way a case can be made and conveyed is through words.

It is no excuse to respond that science is a difficult subject to convey to the laity, an unpopular subject. It is not good enough to say that they -- the great big amorphous 'they' out there on the fringes -- will not respond no matter how hard you work on them.

In today's political frenzies, look how Peter Costello grabs public attention to the dry stuff of deficits, surpluses, bracket creep, marginal rates and all that sawdust. He engages most of the electorate through the use of words that are sometimes funny, sometimes smirky, sometimes appealing, always imbued with energy. Look how Julia Gillard has made her self and her attitudes known through a hard, thrusting voice and a sure choice of words. See how Attorney General Ruddock puts people off with his astringent voice, his flat sentences, his use of words that seem to condescend. Listen to the barren hours of Parliament when the linguistic oafs of the back benches drone and stumble over their phrases.

Let's go further afield to Washington D.C. and a small magazine in which the masthead says "The Nation." This is America's oldest journal of commentary and dissent. It began in 1865 as an organ promoting the abolition of slavery -- a subject of dubious popularity. Still coming off the presses every week, The Nation these days is devoted to sceptical examination of public matters, to dissent from establishment programs, to discontent with accepted norms. And nothing is more unpopular in America than political dissent. The mafia gets a better press than dissent. Yet Nation plugs on with its weekly wordage of combat for the comfortable orthodoxy of American debates. It was pretty obscure 25 years ago or so when Victor Navatsky took on the role of publisher and applied hard business principles to hard philosophical principles.
His Nation believes in spreading its words of dissent. The little magazine now has an online edition, a book publishing division, an annual student writing contest in which they are looking foir 'original, thoughtful, provocative,' essays. Still on the young, Nation runs an annual campus journalism conference. The circulation is 184,000, a minnow compared to the whales of mainstream press, but one could argue for influence among thought leaders. To examine the quality of readership you could go to the website and click on Media Kit.

The Nation is not alone in the small but powerful magazine categry. William F. Buckley's The National Review plugs right wing ideas with the same sincerity and feeling. The New Republic sells only 48,000 but offers stimulating commentary. What they have in common is a respect for the power of words, especially well-worked words.

Go thou, ed-sci people of Australia and do likewise.

PS: While on verbal communication, how long will the alphabet last? Will some nerd think up a better tool than this way of writing words? Or a better way of conveying thought than one word after another? Will the word become extinct?


Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.