Threats to UK democracy (what other kind is there?) used to be easy to identify. The Soviets, resurgent fascism, terrorism. Those sorts of things. Nowadays, though, it’s getting at lot harder to work out exactly what these pesky threats to our way of life are.
For example, is the overthrow of an elected regime in Egypt followed by the sentencing to death of 650 people in one morning a threat to democracy, or an expression of it? Bombing folk with drones in Waziristan? Encouraging the overthrow of an elected Ukraine government? It’s all so complicated. It seems to depend on where you sit.
So let me identify one threat to democracy I hope we can all agree upon. It’s “it’s about”.
“It’s about” is perhaps the most ubiquitous phrase in the media these days. In the olden days, “it’s about” meant “It’s approximately…”, but nowadays It’s deployed, ostensibly at least, when people are trying to reduce an idea to its basic components in order to communicate it to laypersons. So, for example, a football manager distilling the imperatives of his job might say, “At the end of the day, it’s about getting more goals than the other team”. Can’t argue with that. This football manager usage of “it’s about” seems a handy abbreviation which avoids a lot of hot air and conforms to the limited time experts have to explain things to the rest of us.
But “it’s about” has, over the last few years, been growing arms and legs. People have been using it with all sorts of hidden and less-hidden meanings. The most significant developments, in my own lofty view, occur where experts use the phrase to imply a useful abbreviation when what they’re actually doing is sneaking a value judgement past us under cover of linguistic helpfulness. These new usages are consciously political, and very cheeky in a democracy.
For example, I’ve just been listening to a fascinating Radio 4 programme about 11+ testing for grammar schools. In it, the interviewer asks an expert (who works in the grammar school system) about the validity of a new system of testing children for entry to grammar schools. The expert’s response includes (I paraphrase here, but you can listen for yourself): “it’s about running an effective school for children of all abilities”. The interviewer (in what is a super programme) leaves it at that.
The expert here is trying the ‘football manager’ device – she seems to be making a generally commonsensical statement few of us could disagree with. But, actually, the true meaning of her response lies in the ‘children of all abilities’ part. Grammar schools don’t and never can cater for ‘children of all abilities’, so the expert is either missing that point altogether (which seems unlikely), or condemning the notion of grammar schools as they currently exist. Admittedly, it would be odd for someone who works in the grammar school system to be wholly condemnatory of it, but on the other hand it really can’t be true that any 11+ testing regime could be “about” creating a school for children of all abilities, since by definition grammar schools do the opposite of this. In truth, the expert is trying to find a response which both accepts the need for 11+ testing but also nods towards social fairness. In other words, she’s using “it’s about” to politically finesse her response to make two incompatible notions sounds compatible – all under cover of simple abbreviation.
Another expert on the same subject, this time a school head in Buckinghamshire, is quoted here: “It’s about the most fair and accessible test to put all children”. We might reasonably infer from his “it’s about” that fairness and accessibility to his school are his priorities. But in fact, ‘fairness’ can mean very different things to different people – it’s a value judgement – and it’s far from clear how accessibility is served by having a test which excludes most children. In other words, the expert’s words here don’t really have any meaningful content at all – he’s simply using “it’s about” to sound fair, professional and sensible without actually saying anything at all.
If there’s one thing that grinds my gears (and, actually, there are a few) it’s experts being cheeky with value judgements and pretending they’re just a commonsensical extension of their own expertise. When it comes to turning expert knowledge into something understandable to all of us, it’s the experts’ job to do ‘the football manager”. But the next time you hear one using “it’s about,” watch for how they’re slipping in the value judgement or the simple appeal to their professionalism. They are prepackaging opinions that non-experts (i.e. regular folk) should be left to form for themselves. For example, see pretty much any policy issue from alcohol and smoking to schools, hospitals and the environment.
Politicians often use “it’s about”, but when then do they’re using it politically because that’s their job: the implied correctness of their opinion makes sense. They’re trying to steamroller the listener into accepting their take on the central issue in any complex situation. We know there’s an implied value judgement and look for it. When experts use it, they’re placing themselves above ‘interests’ while quietly representing their own. Indeed, politicians often call on experts to shore up their steamrolling operation – and experts are often very keen to oblige, but only as long as they’re being properly rewarded.
A value judgement or political statement doesn’t become any less arguable because it’s said by an ‘expert’, and ‘impartiality’ is largely a fiction in a world where the senior echelons of pretty much all ‘expert’ groups are populated by politicians of one sort or another.
So I say, “It’s about” – stamp it out! You’ll be doing a service to democracy.
Next week – ‘How insane exaggeration is undermining our democracy’.