Brexit: Some thoughts on words, politics and power-play

Over the last few months I have read various books, and as certain comments struck me in regard to the current political situation in the UK, I posted on Facebook.  I have deliberately kept them “decision-neutral” not least because I am undecided, but also to highlight my thoughts, in the words of others, because I have found it difficult to navigate through this treacherous political terrain.  My opening gambit on every Facebook post began thus: 

“Reading this also reminded me of much political discourse in general, and the Brexit debate in particular:”

“For what counts as true for one group is often disparaged as a manipulative disguise to legitimate power-claims by another group. If different groups try to adopt different criteria of truth to determine what counts as true, or even what counts as a meaningful truth-claim, rational argument and dialogue become undermined by recurring appeals to what one group counts as axioms, but seem far from axiomatic for another. At this point argument becomes transposed as rhetoric. Rhetoric then comes to rely on force, seduction, or manipulation.”

Anthony Thiselton in ‘On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise’

“They set themselves to drive people to inward despair and then the game is in their hand…. And whom does it touch? A small number of people who regard themselves as the most important thing in the world, and who therefore like to busy themselves with themselves.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer , Letters and Papers from Prison


“It is one task of theology, among others, to attempt to disentangle manipulative power-bids from non-manipulative truth-claims, and to distinguish evidence, argument, or valid testimony from modes of rhetoric which rely on seduction, disguised force, or illigitimate appeals to privilege.”

Anthony Thiselton, On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise


“Contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousand fold my own doubts…”

Bertrand Russell


“These poor fellows furnish a “comic” performance which is so humble, and poor and pitiful, and childish, and asinine, and inadequate that it makes a person ashamed of the human race. Ah, their timorous dances – and their timorous antics – and their shamefaced attempts at funny grimacing – and their cockney songs and jokes – they touch you, they pain you, they fill you with pity, they make you cry…. London loves them; London has a warm big heart, and there is room and a welcome in it for all the misappreciated refuse of creation.”

Mark Twain, Autobiography volume 1, pg. 114-5


“Ordinary people are too busy and too tired at the end of a hard working day to make time to check the validity of speculative or rash truth-claims, and they usually have no access to the kind of [resources] that might enable them to do so if they could.”

Anthony Thiselton, ‘On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise’


“Utopia is only possible when those advocating it assume they are good.”

Peter Hitchins

Having just attended a Brexit debate, let us be clear that the pompously over used phrase, “Let us be clear…” is most definitely a continuation of the very thing that is unclear!

Richard Matcham


“To have a [group] in favour of union and a [group] in favour of separation, is as absurd as to have a [group] in favour of going upstairs and a [group] in favour of going downstairs. The question is not whether we go up or down stairs, but where we are going to, and what we are going for?….The question in all cases is is not a question of union or absence of union, but of identity or absence of identity.”

G. K. Chesterton


“Part of the safeguard against self-deception and manipulation is the task of listening to other selves in mutuality and self-criticism….this has to do with moral and political responsibility in the context of community and traditions.”

Anthony Thiselton, ‘On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise’


“Overheated rhetoric, intellectual contortions and many forms of dishonesty are the inevitable result [and] plays into the hands of demotic elitists, who are an elite only in their superior willingness to resort to the black arts of manipulation and bureaucratic in-fighting.”

Theodore Dalrymple, ‘Spoilt Rotten – the toxic cult of sentimentality’


“It is not the wild ideals which wreck the practical world; it is the tame ideals.”

G. K. Chesterton


“The English nation will still be going the way of all European nations when the Anglo-Saxon race has gone the way of all fads.”

G. K. Chesterton


“The power of bureaucrats to define ‘norms’ and ‘acceptable’ procedures, together with the escalating of power which they gain through ‘surveillance’ and the possession of files and databanks makes it impossible for them to fail to exercise power-play.”

Anthony Thiselton in ‘On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise’


“I notice repeatedly here how few people there are who can harbour conflicting emotions at the same time. When bombers come, they are all fears; when there is something to eat, they are all greed; when they are disappointed, they are all despair; when they are successful, they can think of nothing else….everything objective and subjective is dissolved for them into fragments.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters to Eberhard Bethge, 1944, in A Testament to Freedom


“The more we recite and perform the jingoism of the ideology, the more – in our awareness of unsustainability – we cannot trust the rhetoric.”

Walter Breugemann in ‘Reality, Grief, Hope’


Dr: “Still it must be disorientating…’re bound to be feeling……”
MT: “What am I bound to be feeling? People don’t think anymore. They feel. “How are you feeling?” “Oh, I don’t feel comfortable!” “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Do you know, one of the great problems of our age, is that we are governed by people who care more about their feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Now, thoughts and ideas! That interests me. Ask me what I’m thinking.”
Dr: “What are you thinking, Margaret?”
MT: “Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. Watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think we become. My father always said that. And I think I am fine!”

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in ‘The Iron Lady’


“Lost at sea, storm is raging. The captain believes the ship will sink if they don’t jettison some baggage.”
“What’s the cargo?”
“No cargo, just people.”
“Well, chuck the evil ones first?”
“But the people are like you and me. Good people. Honest people. People just trying to make their way across an ocean….someone needs to be sacrificed if the ship is to stay afloat.”

Part of the dialogue on Casualty, BBC1, June 2016


“We can’t believe that bomb is called security.
We can’t believe that monopoly is called democracy.
We can’t believe that [petrol] prices are called foreign policy.
We can’t believe that racism is called fighting crime!
We can’t believe that sweatshops are called efficiency!
We can’t believe that a mall is called a neighbourhood!
We can’t believe that advertising is called free-speech!
We can’t believe that love is called for sale!
We can’t believe that you think there are two [main] political parties!
We can’t believe that you repeat the word “democracy” like it’s a liturgical chant from a lost religion!

Quoted in Walter Breuggemann in Reality, Grief, Hope


“Such a lack of integrity in speech is essentially a political matter. To make what is invulnerable by displacing its real subject matter is a strategy for the retention of power. It operates at either end of the social scale: in the language of those who control, and in the language of the powerless in the presence of the powerful, which takes on the images and definitions offered by the latter as the only possible means of access to their world, their resources. Of course, there are times when this becomes a deliberately ironic (and thus subversive) move on the part of the powerless, but it remains as discourse, without integrity: it is still talking about, and negotiating its way in, the power relations that prevail, whatever it claims to be saying.”

Rowan William, ‘On Christian Theology’

“Forsyth knew in his own time and place, and in his own way, that the role of genuine theology is to uncover the truth, which must include the uncomfortable truth of the forms and masks worn by egoism in society.”

Keith Clements, ‘P. T. Forsyth: A Political Theologian?’ in ‘Justice the True and Only Mercy’ by Trevor Hart

“Sometimes it’s the ordinary words that contain the deepest meanings, and the most far reaching possibilities. We live now in the rhetorically overblown world of politics in which spin is now the least of the dangers to truth. For added devalue of truth, evasiveness is now a required skill, mantra chanting of words like deficit and austerity is a new liturgy of the have plenties, moralised clauses of exclusion such as ‘those who do the right thing’, and ‘hard working families’ are given quasi-moral currency, and promises (such as on child tax credits) are printed and published like promissory banknotes only to find that, once in power, the notes are declared by the issuer as past their use by date. These are rough and hard and harsh times for many people, and they need more than politicians who make a virtue out of being rough, hard and harsh in their policies, even if they do sound like sweet reason in their explanations and claim to represent the nation’s interests.”

Jim Gordon in ‘Why the Phrase “a Kinder Politics” Has the Potential to Generate Change’ at Living Wittily


Caveat:  I have read these comments in all the original places, and have gathered them over quite a few weeks.  Only last Thursday was one of our MP’s brutally murdered by a sick political fantasist.  Jo Cox it seems was quite an exceptional human being and MP.  So whilst the comments above highlight a general critique of culture and politics, there are always those who stand out and rise above.  This is in no way to idealise Ms Cox in a sea of sentimentality, something for some reason the British public loves to do –  she would not want that I am sure.  But my aim on this post is certainly not to tar the whole political and/or cultural brush; it is an attempt to expose the dirt and reveal that the brush can become clean again, if not wholly, then in part, simply by becoming more aware and alert to our context.  Without the exceptions, the world would be a far bleaker place, if that is hard to imagine.  Jo Cox MP was an exception, and the world without her, a bleaker place.  RIP.

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