Tuesday, February 22, 2005


I mentioned on Friday night that I was attending a public lecture. The lecture was given by Don Watson, a former speechwriter for the Keating government and anti-management-speak activist. Fighting against 'weasel words' is an admirable struggle, and at the end of the lecture, a friend I was with turned to me and said, "What did you think?" I demurred, but he pressed me on it, so I told him.

"What an insufferable arsehole," I said.

The evening was going badly before he even spoke a word (weaselly or otherwise). He was introduced by Dr Fiona Stanley, noted local physician and ratbag, who prefaced her introduction with a big thank you to the Noongar people* for allowing us to meet on their land. Never mind that there weren't any Noongars in the audience. Never mind that the University has owned the site for nearly a century. Never mind that had any actual Noongars been present, they probably would have told her to piss off. But at least St Fiona thanked them and thus demonstrated her vast personal virtue, which, let's face it, is the whole point.

Then Don got up to speak. I took notes. Looking back on them now, my notes are peppered with phrases like MAKE A POINT! and TALK ABOUT THE DAMN WORDS! because Don seemed to prefer to make snippy, bitchy asides about politics and social issues than address language and linguistics.

This is not to say that he didn't make a few good points. Why does the Australian Taxation Office start letters to taxpayers with the words "Dear valued customer" when we're not dear to them, not valued by them, and not customers? What in the hell is a Chief Knowledge Officer? What are "advanced language metaphors", how do they differ to simple "metaphors", and can the consultancy firm offering to teach them to you really be trusted to know the difference? So there were occasional gleams in the dross. But these were simple, undeveloped points, and between each glimmer of relevance, there were great piles of sneering snobbery, political whining and the sort of sociological analysis rarely seen outside of student newspapers.

But worst of all, he actually committed one of the most heinous language sins himself, in his quest to prove his counter-cultural credentials. He mocked the US military for referring to some of their activities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay as "enhanced interrogation techniques". "For goodness sakes," he crowed. "Let's just call it what it is - torture!"

And yet somehow, only a few moments later, as he addressed the conditions in the Nazi death camps, he said, "Words can't describe this level of state-sponsored inhumanity." Yes they can, dipshit. It's called 'torture'. That's the problem when you describe leading a man around with panties on his head as 'torture' - what word do you then use for feeding people feet first into an industrial paper shredder? Keep insisting that small issues are 'scandals' and 'outrages', and you won't have any words to use when genuine scandals and outrages occur.

To his credit, Don wasn't as bad as the crowd. He admitted that the military are a useful and necessary part of society, which drew some disgruntled mutterings. And when it came to question time, and a chunky old woman prefaced her words with "I have three points and a question" then never go to the question, he dryly noted, "I take it that's a rhetorical question."

I could go on, but you get the gist. It was a disappointing affair overall, in which cogent ideas were poured through ideological filters until they made no sense but fitted where they were wanted, and it was presented as if the speaker was wearied to the bone by having to prove it all to imbeciles who didn't share his rarified good breeding. It was less a lecture and more an erudite hissy fit. Had I been able to maintain my Victorian mindset, I would have taken a swig of Dr Cuthbert's Revitalising Medicinal Tonic and fetched him one around the earhole with my phrenology textbook.

At least there were some good discussions to be had about it at the cafe afterwards. I wasn't the only one to feel dissatisfied.

*The Noongars are the aboriginal tribe who (probably) occupied this area before European settlement.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi- Nice blog!

Perth is gorgeous.

But in my experience, and working under Pat Torres at Curtin, there are many people that would think he should thank the Aboriginal people just for being in Australia!

~MooCow's friend, Clem.

5:22 AM  

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