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The masters of spin play with the facts, from Mexican walls to Victoria’s creative industries

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Over the course of the 20th century and into our current one, empirical advances have been made in the way we use words to sell goods and services. The result is that the impressionistic rhetoric of promotion has developed significant currency, so much so that ad speak has become in many ways the language of the 21st Century. And a great deal of it, is what the American moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt called “bullshit”.

I don’t have a television and so I rely on billboards and passing trams for my daily doses of bullshit, my fill of messages encouraging me to do what every self-respecting Australian should do. Buy more stuff. Like the billboard on the Tulla Freeway that tells me I need a new air purifier because Air pollution isn’t just a problem outside. It’s a problem inside too. Now that seems fair. It’s the same air isn’t it? Apparently not, because when I got home and checked the ad I was shocked to discover that according to the fine print the air inside my house could be as much as five times more polluted than the air outside.

The assertion made by the company that wants to flog me this machine had a reliable source, the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, a partnership between the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO. Now this is a worry for a man who has a family history littered with untimely deaths from respiratory illnesses. So I found the report.

Forty dwellings located over an 800 km2 area in the south-east of Melbourne with a range of ages, materials and structures were tested over a three month period. The report found that some gases where detected in higher concentrations indoors and that ventilation and activities associated with combustion and cooking were the major influences on poor indoor air quality. In other words if you’re worried about the air quality in your place you can buy the gadget, or maybe open a window while you’re frying chips.

Some of the other current bullshit is just plain funny. Like the bank that is tempting me to sign up with the opportunity to “Pay the way you love”. Is that hard and fast, or slow and erotically? This is what Frankfurt would call classic bullshit. Neither false enough to risk litigation nor true enough to be a fact but something we nonetheless find strangely compelling.

Spin is created by communication specialists employed by politicians using advertising and market research techniques to maximise the impact of public messages while minimising scrutiny.

It is bullshit’s capacity to proffer simple solutions to pressing problems or make apparent light work of what would otherwise be complex decision making that has seen it embraced in the public space, so much so that scholars are now calling “Political Bullshit”, the language of “The New Public”.

In The New Public discourse is dominated by spin created by communication specialists employed by politicians who utilise advertising and market research techniques to maximise the impact of public messages while minimising the possibility of them being scrutinised. In The New Public political argument has almost entirely been displaced by political bullshit, language of the same pithiness, faux intensity and momentousness that we associate with the best marketing. The effect is that public discourse has been stripped of explanation, argumentative power and the facts.

“I’m only interested in what needs to get done.” said Donald Trump on his way to the White House. Trump’s own appeal depended more than anything on the electorate’s belief that he was a truth-teller untainted by the bullshitting ways of conventional politicians. “He tells it like it is, and we need that now in a president.” said half of America. What has become clear as Trump and his administration begin to unravel is that America, the home of the slogan, made the mistake of confusing advertising style truth-telling with actually telling the truth. Trump has become the most powerful man on the planet by noisily rejecting any notion of traditional rhetoric and in doing so taken political bullshit into the next dimension.

By using compelling sound bites Trump convinced people he wasn’t trying to deceive them like regular politicians. So they all switched off their critical faculties and bought the new political bullshit. Make America Great Again is a pithy, momentous, vacuous four word slogan that needs no explanation. Its meaning was self-evident, and, along with “We’re Gonna build a Wall” and other dazzling verbal imagery it allowed Trump to conceal what has now become blindingly obvious: he hadn’t actually thought anything through. What we are seeing across the Pacific is an example of how slogans are great for selling air purifiers but they don’t really cut the mustard when you’re running the most powerful country on the planet. A stunning piece of political bullshit that has now been replaced by a new, even pithier four word slogan. “We have no policy”.

In his book “On Bullshit” Professor Frankfurt describes the bull shitter as one for whom

… the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; … [he] is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all…except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest with getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

It was in this way that the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson used his characteristically idiosyncratic bullshit to ridicule the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s security credentials following the Labor leader’s comment that there would be “no first use” of nuclear weapons on his watch because nuclear war would be “disastrous for the planet” and he “did not want to be responsible for the destruction of millions of people”.

After calling Corbyn a “mugwump” Johnson extrapolated the statement into bullshit we could all understand. “… it was really spine-chilling to hear Jeremy Corbyn announce that all Labour’s support for our nuclear deterrent, all Labour’s support for our Armed Forces was completely meaningless because when it came to the business of defending this country he wouldn’t do it.”

Corbyn’s rather sensible admission that he wouldn’t be inclined to just hit the button may well have been decisive in determining the outcome of a very close election, an election which, as a result of recent events, was fought in the last stages along national security lines. And if we were to we give a bit of thought to what Boris’s bullshit implies, Britons had a simple choice: to vote for someone who admitted he didn’t fancy blowing up the planet or someone who wouldn’t give it a second thought.

And bullshit happens here too. During the Northern Territory’s 2016 election the creation of an atmosphere of fear around juvenile crime resulted in a campaign of political bullshit that looked more like a Law and Order 50% off sale than any kind of politics I’ve seen before. Politicians on both sides competed to demonise youth delinquency and to drive a singular focus upon being as merciless as possible, with promises of tougher sentences, increased police powers and stricter bail laws. Despite all of us knowing that youth crime anywhere is caused by complex web of socio-economic factors, factors that point to a failure of public policy and to a large extent our communities, the electioneering instead remained myopically focused on retribution. Individual lives, children’s lives, became the bargaining chips for political gain as both sides talked about throwing these kids into what some bullshit genius decided to call a “big concrete hole”. A disgraceful example of firm handed, Hollywood action hero, divisive bullshit imagery that replaced the thought, time and effort that should have gone in to understanding why there was a problem and what policies were needed to fix it.

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We now have a Royal Commission into the treatment of kids in detention in the Territory following the revelations that children were being tortured in what looked like a throw back to the good old days of Saddam. And it is those lazy, elected representatives and desperately self-serving candidates who are morally culpable, who preferred to use simplistic sound bites masquerading as policy to engineer a delirium of public panic for their own gain rather than do what we elect politicians to do. Create policy. And the torture of children should not come as a surprise because, whichever way you look at it, the logical endpoint of political bullshit that talks about children like animals is the treating of children like animals.

It is for reasons like this that Frankfurt asserts in his book that bullshit is actually more pernicious than lying because it is unconnected with the truth. He goes on to propose that: It is this lack of connection to a concern with the truth…an indifference with how things really are and with consequence, that is morally and socially dangerous. It reveals a disregard for truth and accuracy much more profound than that displayed by the liar.

We in the arts are not inured from this kind of bullshit as last week’s press release from the Victorian Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley demonstrates so admirably.

More than 1200 career opportunities will be created for artists and creative industries workers across the state through the Andrews Labor Government’s latest round of VicArts grants.

Sixty-two projects will share in more than $1 million in funding, which will create opportunities for almost 900 independent artists and 350 technical, administrative and other support roles in the independent arts sector.

A classic piece of political bullshit using the entire skill set of the bullshitter. First the tone which is theatrically epic, momentous in its claim of more than 1200 career opportunities alongside the more than a million which gives the impression of continuing government largesse. The claim isn’t a lie as such because 62 somethings are presumably going to happen somehow but when you do the maths you begin to see that at best it gives a false impression. Sixty-two  projects means they will all get about $15,000 each. Now, given it costs around $100,000 to make a four handed theatre show if you pay everyone and do it in a small venue, I can only assume we’re either not putting any shows on, we’re just doing developments, or we’re partly funding things that people don’t get properly paid for. Or each one of those projects is going to hire the Fairfax Studio in the government owned Arts Centre for a week.

Next is the exaggeration of the truth. 1200 career opportunities? Yes, 1200 people will get something but again, if you do the maths that’s $833 each. Provided there are no other expenses like room hire or coffee. So whilst it’s something it’s not really a career as such, I certainly wouldn’t be looking at real estate. Bullshit. A statement made without caring whether it is true or false that has no relation to the truth as truth or falseness as falseness. It’s really just acoustic pollution.

What would happen if we actually supported artists’ careers in this town? Heaven forbid, we may just end up with a genuinely creative and innovative economy.

It is a statement that manages to clearly demonstrate a complete indifference to how things really are. Tough. There has been no meaningful increase in discretionary funds for a decade. The Australia Council still hasn’t really worked out what it is doing since the Brandis debacle and in my own discipline, the theatre, we are faced with the fact that we live in a city of four million people, the Paris of the south, with just two full time theatre companies. Unlike Brisbane or Sydney we have no company in Melbourne dedicated to the production of new Australian work which means we are left to gaze on helplessly as a generation of mid-career playwrights, our primary producers, vanish before our eyes. How does the Minister expect us to have a theatre without plays?

So when Foley says;

The latest round of Vic Arts grants will provide crucial support to Victoria’s independent artists, the driving force of our creative industries.

What does he mean? He seems to acknowledge the importance of independent artists, he seems to realise that in any creative ecosystem the independent sector does most of the heavy lifting, nurturing talent, educating, mentoring. Yet of the $108 million  in grants to Creative Industries announced by this government in the past weeks, $100,000 has been doled out to independent theatre. Bullshit.

The Andrews’ government says it acknowledges the value of the creative arts as part of our state’s identity. That creativity and innovation are what is going to drive our state’s future. I know this because it’s on a billboard on the Tulla. But instead of supporting it properly they are doing exactly what successive governments have done in this state ever since I’ve been here. Displaying an almost pathological fear of giving money to artists and throwing it instead at infrastructure and more bureaucracy, at programs that encourage capacity building to presumably grow audiences for art we don’t have the money to make. What would happen if we actually supported artists’ careers in this town? Heaven forbid, we may just end up with a genuinely creative and innovative economy.

But perhaps what’s most disappointing about this bullshit is that a lot of the time it looks and sounds deceptively like they might actually do something and clearly those in the ministry don’t think about how devastating that kind of bullshit is to a community struggling to survive. And when a Minister releases a statement like that, presumably intended for the general public to reassure them that we’re being looked after, to see that he has such a disregard for truth and accuracy and is prepared to mislead people in that way… well.

It’s just more of the same sort of bullshit that saw me recently involved in an email exchange with a member of the Minister’s staff. That conversation followed my last article for Daily Review in which I was critical of the announcement that $107 million of the government’s near $2 billion surplus was finding its way to the creative industries, but not one cent was going to artists in spite of its own strategic taskforce recommending “investing in people and capabilities as much as physical infrastructure and assets”.

I explained to my keyboard interlocutor that the recent premature death of one of my colleagues could in part be attributed to this type of arts policy, policy that constantly talks of the value of artists while failing to give them any financial support. Policy that is continually searching for the new whilst caring little for continuity of experience. Policy that asks artists to routinely re-invent their practice to suit whatever the flavour of the day is, so that they might be relevant enough to scramble a living.

I explained that we were all just plain tired of pleading with governments that continue to find new money for the arts to give a little of it to artists. That, in part, my friend’s demise could be attributed to his inability to come to terms with this ongoing disregard for the reality of the life of the artist. Their direct response was simply; “So we haven’t lost 10 million. Just want to be sure you know that.” No we hadn’t. Just a person. Bullshit. A complete collapse of meaning and consequence.

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[box]Main image: Women’s Circus, The Maids, 2016. Photo by Marie Watt via Creative Victoria[/box]

5 responses to “The masters of spin play with the facts, from Mexican walls to Victoria’s creative industries

  1. Thanks for this Neil. My dear old dad, a staunch union man who was of the generation who was emotionally scarred by growing up during the depression offered me this advice when I went to uni. “Always remember son that bullshit baffles brains in the best of times”. It’s advice I found useful in academia. If we want to save democracy as we know it, then it’s time that ” Bullshit” became a mandatory subject in the K-12 National Curriculum, and ” Recognising and Countering Bullshit” became part of the NAPLAN test.

  2. Good article, and well felt. Remember that American saying that ‘You can’t fool all of the people all of the time’? Seems like you just have to fool most of them most of the time.

  3. While this guy is whinging about something legitimate to whinge about, ie exaggeration or just bullshit in selling a product or idea his claim that it is worse than 50 years ago is much greater bullshit than anything he is complaining about. What trump and co bullshit about is what nearly everybody believed or pretended to believed 50 years ago. 50 years ago aborigines didn’t vote and both parties supporting the white Australia policy with the labor leader saying ‘2 wongs don’t make a white’. Forget gay marriage it was illegal to be gay.
    In 1967 trump bannon Abbott would have been seen as radical progressives for restricting immigration bans to only Muslims.
    Advertising was openly lies. Celebrities saying they used a product every day, smoke ads saying it’s good for the throat, all ads were completely sexist. This article is bullshit!!!!!!

  4. Boris Johnson just made a galant attempt to prove me wrong by saying Teresa May got 3 standing ovations in the party room

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