One of the reasons time has been too short for decent blogging (or, for that matter, indecent blogging) is my having taken on too many speaking engagements which required proper preparation. One of them was a contribution to a multidisciplinary conference on The Rhetorics of Moderation at the University of Huddersfield last night. I had been invited to deliver a keynote address at the final conference of a three-year project initiated by the Universities of Nottingham, Edinburgh and Huddersfield.

The draft text (not quite as delivered) is available on the Bradford diocesan website. But I will try to sum up the key bits here and see what sort (if any) of response it gets.

When I (finally) agreed to do this gig I wasn’t sure what the title of the series really meant: ‘The Rhetorics of Moderation’. I initially wondered if it might be an academic conference on how to talk about exam invigilation – clearly misunderstanding both ‘rhetoric’ and ‘moderation’. But, I eventually offered the title The Moderation of Rhetoric, so I could bang on about ‘language’ again. As a non-academic it is always a little intimidating going into such a context, but everyone was kind and the conversation was, I thought, quite stimulating.

My basic point – developing Helmut Schmidt’s argument (in Außer Dienst) that in order to understand your own culture you have to look at it through the lens of a different culture… and you can only do that if you understand something of the other language – was simple: language shapes both thought and behaviour. Therefore, language (or rhetoric) is not neutral. As  put it in my introduction:

So, my simple contention here is that language matters – that before reflecting on the ‘rhetorics of moderation’, we need to pay attention to the moderation of rhetoric and the ways in which we use language in our common human discourses in a complicated globalised world.

It is essential for good public discourse that interlocutors learn the language of ‘the other’ in order (a) to understand, (b) to know how to respond, (c) to see how this response will be heard and understood by ‘the other’, and (d) to keep the conversation going. This point is helpfully addressed by Rowan Williams in his brilliant book on Dostoyevsky where he writes about the corruption of language. Here are a couple of quotes from the Introduction to the book:

The novels [of Dostoyevsky] ask us, in effect, whether we can imagine a human community of language and feeling in which, even if we were incapable of fully realizing it, we knew what was due to each other; whether we could imagine living in the consciousness of a solidity or depth in each other which no amount of failure, suffering or desolation could eradicate.

[Dostoyevsky as narrator] sees language itself as the indisputable marker of freedom: confronted with what seeks to close down exchange or conflict, we discover that we can always say more… When we have nothing with which to engage, we stop speaking and stop developing.

Williams goes on to tie language and freedom to a responsive experience of ‘otherness’ and he challenges the Hegelian ‘freedom of the void’ – that is, as Williams puts it:

…the dream of a liberty completely without constraint from any other, human, subhuman or divine; because it has no “other”, it can also have no content. But this means that the hunger for such freedom can only manifest itself in destruction, flinging itself against existing limits… …the Dostoevskian novel is… an exercise in resisting the demonic and rescuing language.

So, Williams takes from Dostoyevsky the notion that language is not neutral, that human beings use language to close down or open up relationship, that language is the key to and fundamental expression of freedom… and that when we reach the end of ‘having something more to say’, we have constrained genuine freedom and closed down the possibility of development or coexistence. (Perhaps this also explains his approach to those contentious issues in the Anglican Communion where people want to close down conversation and force a conclusion that saves them from the pain of engaging with ‘the other’.)

I took from this that “we might derive the imperative (for human flourishing in a good society) of human beings and human communities learning the languages of ‘the other’, not as a virtuous end in itself, or even an altruistic means of keeping a relationship going, (or even for knowing which beer to order on holiday), but as a non-negotiable and essential feature of human freedom and dignity. We have to be multilingual (in the sense of paying attention to and learning to understand what is both being said and what is being heard) in order to survive, but also in order to thrive and enable ‘the other’ to thrive in a way that guarantees mutual flourishing. In other words, language at the very least provides the space in which relationship and responsibility can grow.”

I went on to illustrate (from personal experience of media, social media and interfaith dialogue) the importance of getting the language right. It won’t come as any surprise to readers of this blog that my unease with some of our media language got a run-around again. Not only do I think a strong democracy demands a strong, informed, intelligent and independent press, but I also think that those who hold the rest of us to account should themselves be held to account for the professionalism (or lack of it) with which they operate.

Finding people who have learned how to think about how to think – or how we know that we know what we know (epistemology, if you want the posh word) – is clearly becoming more rare. It is trivial engagement in creating conflict that drives the media agenda. Of course there are exceptions to this, but it is hard to pretend that democracy is served by what we are currently served up. The point is, however, that those who use language to persuade, influence and inform also need to be held to account for how they manipulate the powerful tool at their disposal.

My fear here is that the crass diminution of encouragement of and support for arts, humanities and social sciences in both school and university means that not only are we creating a culture that values mechanics, but doesn’t do ‘deep’ thinking. Not only are we in danger of depriving the current generation, but we are cutting off the expertise and enthusiasms we need for a future generation of teachers. We can lose in one generation what will take several generations (at least) to recover. To see the arts and humanities as ‘unproductive’ in terms of balance sheet bottom lines is more than myopic; it is dangerously and narrowly stupid.

My conclusion was not very startling:

If we take social cohesion seriously, we must pay attention to the language we use. Our rhetoric needs to be moderated, challenged, thought through. This is not pedantry or a form of distraction therapy; language shapes behaviour and shapes the lens through which different people see differently the different worlds within which we live. The diminution of attention to language – now seen in the paucity of language teaching and learning, the demotion of arts and humanities, does not augur well for having good public moderators of rhetoric in the decades to come. But the task will not go away.

It is worth considering that I delivered this address (and discussed questions arising from it in a stimulating Q & A session afterwards) immediately after visiting a Church of England primary school. The school serves one of the most challenging and deprived communities in Bradford and is outstanding in all respects. Contrary to the sloppy reporting in the media about ‘faith schools’ – either ignorant of or deliberately disregarding of the distinction between ‘faith schools’ and ‘church schools’ – this school works wonders for families, local communities and commands the determined loyalty of staff and governors. The headteacher told me she didn’t want moderately interested or interesting teachers or visitors to the school; she wants people who are passionate about what they do, how they think and what they believe. This school would be an inconvenient embarrassement to those who wish to pretend that church schools are divisive, privileged, sectarian or damaging.

Here again, the language is crucial.